Highway Robbery: $286 Billion

George Orwell’s 1946 classic Animal Farm is a tale of the rising up of the long downtrodden animals to overthrow the hated humans and establish a new order. Under new management, the farm seems to move in the right direction for a while, but the pigs slowly decide that the lifestyle of their former masters was pretty good, and consequently morph into a ruling class indistinguishable from that which they displaced. Originally intended by Orwell to parody the Soviet revolution of 1917, one can now see parallels to the Republican Revolution of 1994. There is no better example of the new management’s taking on the manner of the old regime than the highway bill that President Bush signed this week.

This bill combines spending excess, poor allocation of public dollars, gross political self-interest and fudged numbers to boot. All of these ingredients are smothered in oily rhetoric about “creating jobs.”

Record Spending

The official cost of the new highway bill is $286.4 billion, which is a record. But maybe the most shocking aspect is the pork. Nearly 6,500 pork-barrel projects are stuffed into the bill. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan vetoed that year’s highway bill because he (rightly) objected to the inclusion of a “mere” 152 member-requested projects for their districts. That politics trumped good public policy in this year’s bill can be seen maybe most clearly in Alaska, where Republican porkers—Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young—managed to secure the fourth highest number of earmarks for the third least populous state.

Paralleling the legerdemain of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, Republicans even threw in phony numbers to try to pretend the bill doesn’t dramatically exceed the spending limit that had been set—with a veto threat—by Bush. The bill contains a promise that on the very last day the measure is in effect—Sept. 30, 2009—Congress will make an unspecified spending cut of $8.5 billion. Long years of experience have shown time and again that when a sitting Congress promises unspecified spending cuts by a future Congress, it is meaningless rhetoric.

All told, the bill exceeds by $11 billion the spending level that Bush promised would elicit his first veto. Fiscal conservatives must continue to wait for that veto, as the administration has again capitulated to the big spenders on Capitol Hill.

The Republican base is told to be happy about this mess. After all, the legislation will—in the words of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.)—“create jobs,” and is, according to Bush, “fiscally responsible.” Scroll back to the late 1970s and imagine how Republicans then would have responded to such claims by Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.) and Democratic President Jimmy Carter about a similar pork-filled spending bill.

The highway bill is not an isolated incident. Federal spending is up sharply in almost all categories. The President’s own budget office is estimating that federal spending this year will be 33% higher than just four years ago. This is hardly just the result of Defense and Homeland Security expenditures. Consider that over these same four years, spending at the Department of Agriculture will have skyrocketed 40%, while spending at the Department of Education will have grown at almost twice the rate of military spending.

As a consequence of this spending splurge, the tax cut train has stalled, and in fact, it is quite likely that many of the tax cuts enacted during the first Bush term will fall by the wayside. (When tax rates are higher tomorrow than today, we fiscal conservatives call that a “tax hike.”) If taxes start to rise under GOP rule, the unraveling of the Republican Revolution will be complete and—just as with Orwell’s pigs—the new rulers will be completely indistinguishable from the pre-1994 manor lords.