President Bush’s attempt to cut spending was shot down last week by a gang of Senate bipartisan bandits in a crime one can only describe as highway robbery.
In a rare break with the president over one of the biggest spending bills of the year, Republicans ignored White House veto threats and teamed up with Democrats on behalf of a pork-filled transit bill that busts Congress’s own budget ceilings,
The fiscal holdup occurred in broad daylight Wednesday as senators, including 33 Republicans, overwhelmingly agreed to violate budget-cap rules and add another $11 billion to a $284 billion, six-year highway and mass-transit funding bill. It was a disappointing retreat on spending restraint that was embedded into the budget bill passed by both houses earlier this year.
To its credit, the House had kept to the $284 billion figure Bush wants, though they inserted loophole language that would permit them to boost state funding formulas before the bill’s 2009 expiration date. The White House warned that even that would invite a presidential veto.
But the Senate was in no mood for budget-cutting on the Holy Grail of spending bills, succumbing to political pressures back home for more highway and bridge construction money. By a veto-crushing 76-22 vote, the Senate rejected a motion that the swollen $295 billion bill would break the budget rules.
Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the Budget Committee chairman, raised the point of order, declaring that the bill was "quite simply, unequivocally, unquestionably, a budget-buster."
As senators argued over the bill, the White House reissued its warning that Bush would veto any bill that exceeded the $284 billion, a threat that was ignored by many of his staunchest fiscal allies.
Republicans like James Talent of Missouri said he was ready to cut the budget, but not when it came to fixing the nation’s deteriorating highway infrastructure. Missouri is notorious for its crumbling road system, and the freshman senator, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, made it clear that he was not with the president on this one.
"It’s like a homeowner saying, ‘You know what? The budget is tight … I’m not going to fix the hole in my roof, because that might cost money,’" Talent told his colleagues.
Well, not exactly. There is plenty of money in the House-passed bill to take care of the nation’s neediest roads. In fact, there would be a great deal more if the bill’s low-priority and no-priority pork-barrel projects were eliminated altogether. Among the more than 4,000 earmarked provisions that added $12 billion to the House bill alone:
• $200 million for a bridge in Alaska to serve a tiny island with only 50 residents.
• $15 million to buy three boats for a New York ferry system between Rockaway Peninsula and Manhattan.
• $3 million to renovate and enlarge the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio.
• $2.88 million to build a bike and pedestrian path in Delta Ponds, Ore.
• $1.7 million to turn Union Station in North Canaan, Conn. into a transportation museum.
• $1.5 million in planning funds for "The American Road" project at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
• $580,000 to rebuild a historic bridge that crosses Maxwell Creek in Sodus, N.Y.
• $500,000 for a transportation museum at the Navy Pier in Chicago.
• $200,000 for a bicycle path in Petal, Miss.
"The transportation bill is a perfect illustration of why the government continues to accrue record deficits despite higher tax receipts and a growing economy," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Schatz is right. These and similarly ridiculous pork projects will not fill a single pothole or improve one traffic-snarled road. Why not pull them from the bill and apply the funds to real, high-priority highway repairs?
Instead, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus of Montana, the panel’s ranking Democrat, offered a tax hike and dubious revenue-shifting package to offset the extra $11 billion, a scheme that Gregg correctly called "illusory" and "baseless."
All of this, of course, is moving inexorably toward a showdown between the White House and the big spenders in Congress. The Senate bill will go into a conference with the House, where both sides will battle over their differences. Bush hopes his veto threat will force negotiators to hold the line at $284 billion, though the Senate showed that it had enough votes to override the president’s opposition if it came to that. A more likely scenario is the usual compromise — they split the difference.
Whatever happens, last week’s budget-buster was another example of waste in Washington at its very worst. Only this time both Republicans and Democrats were to blame.
Guess who’s going to get stuck with the bill.