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May 12, 2005

A four-letter word I'd like to hear from the president

The poster child for outrageous pork-barrel spending is the annual "highway bill", so called because its alleged purpose is to dole out highway funds to the states. As the National Review Editors argue, there is no legitimate reason for the feds to act as a clearinghouse for highway funds — the states could easily collect the gas taxes themselves and spend the proceeds within their borders. Instead, a $400 million/year bureaucracy redistributes the money according to the political whims of Congress — which, of course, is one of the main reasons Congress hasn't relinquished this power. Another reason is that Congress uses the threat of withholding highway funding to states which refuse to bow to the legislature's wishes in some way.

But that's only the beginning of the problems with the highway bill, say the NR editors:
It's been decades since highway bills were limited to meeting vital transportation needs. According to the Heritage Foundation's Ronald D. Utt, the bill under consideration would direct as much as 40 percent of federal fuel-tax revenues toward projects that have little or nothing to do with highway improvements and additions.
Current versions of the bill run as high $295 billion, meaning that nearly $120 billion is earmarked for unrelated pet projects of Representatives and Senators.

After four and a half years in office, President Bush has yet to veto a single bill that has come out of Congress. Is it any wonder that Congress is spending money like a bunch of drunken sailors? Last year he threatened to veto the highway bill, but did not follow through (possibly because pols on both sides of the aisle would have taken up arms against him). This year he threatened again to veto the bill if Congress doesn't keep the total under $284 billion. This is not a principled stand against out-of-control spending of our money (after all, Congress admits through the bill's line items that only $175 billion is needed for highway projects), but still it will be interesting to see if the legislature can restrain itself even this much.

The president has an admirable record of facing down tyrants and other ne'er-do-wells across the globe. I wish he would at least try to do the same here. But that's all it is — a wish. I suspect that any presidential aspirant willing to demand that a spending bill stay within the boundaries of its stated purpose* would never get the nomination of either major party.

* Or, for that matter, demand that Congress fund only those activities in which the federal government is constitutionally permitted to engage — but now I'm really dreaming!

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