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August 2, 2005

It's easy to go crazy when you're spending other people's money

Whether from principle or from political calculation, Sen. John McCain lived up to his "maverick" image by being one of only four senators to vote against the $286.4 billion Highway Bill, as the AP's Jim Abrams reports:
"Egregious and remarkable," exclaimed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about the estimated $24 billion in the bill set aside for highways, bus stops, parking lots and bike trails requested by lawmakers.

McCain, one of only four senators to oppose the bill, listed several dozen "interesting" projects, including $480,000 to rehabilitate a historic warehouse on the Erie Canal and $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas rural roads.

His favorite, he said, was $2.3 million for landscaping on the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California. "I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say."

Reagan, in fact, vetoed a highway bill over what he said were spending excesses, only to be overridden by Congress. Meanwhile, according to a Cato Institute analysis, special projects or "earmarks" numbered 10 in 1982, 152 in 1987, 538 in 1991 and 1,850 in 1998. The 1998 highway act set aside some $9 billion for earmarks, well under half the newest plan.

"This bill will be known as the most earmarked transportation bill in the history of our nation," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks such projects in congressional legislation.
President Bush had threatened a veto if Congress overshot his (in my opinion arbitrary) spending target, but it's almost certain that his first-ever veto would have been overridden. Quoting Abrams again:
Deciding how much will go to earmarks, however, is very much up to Congress, and few lawmakers are willing to turn down a new road or bridge in their district.

"Nothing beats a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a new piece of pavement," said Peter Sepp, spokesman for National Taxpayers Union. "Road projects are regarded as a kind of government jobs program that Republicans can safely embrace."

Lawmakers were sending out press releases bragging of their accomplishments even before the bill was passed, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's a symbol of why everything else is out of control, not just highways."
Never, ever underestimate the willingness of our elected representatives to buy our votes with our own money.

Another who voted against the bill was one of my senators, John Cornyn. His reasons were a bit mixed: (1) Texas didn't get enough of the money (only 92 cents of every dollar of gas tax paid in TX); and (2) The overall total was too much. Presumably he would have been happy if Texas' share was increased at the expense of other states.

Of course, the real solution to this mess is to move it closer to the people. The federal government should get out of the highway-money brokerage business altogether, and let each state be responsible for the roads within its borders. This will never happen, though, for at least two reasons: (1) States that are currently net recipients of highway funds (i.e. they get more money than they paid in gas taxes) will not allow the current system to go away; and (2) Congress as a whole would never give up such an effective vote-buying scheme.

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