By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A23
Last week I wrote about a good Africa trade bill that's been blocked in the Senate. This week I offer a companion tale, which shows how the Senate doesn't necessarily block truly awful measures. In the first case, legislation that nearly everyone supports gets bottled up in committee. In the second case, legislation that only special interests could appreciate might actually move forward.
The truly awful measure comes courtesy of Sen. Kit Bond, the senior Republican from Missouri. Although I'm about to give him a hard time, I'll concede he's not always a baddie. Bond has a moderate voting record, which is nice; and, after fraudsters tried to register dead people and non-people to vote in St. Louis, he showed up at a news conference with an enfranchised Springer Spaniel. But Bond's big failing is that he loves to waste taxpayers' money. "Senator Bond always said pork is a mighty fine diet for Missouri, low in fat and high in jobs," as an aide of his once put it.
Bond is now pushing a project that would hoist him up the porksters' rankings. It's much better than any of the 176 Missouri earmarks that he inserted into the omnibus spending bill earlier this year: earmarks that set aside $500,000 for the Friends of RB Stockton Lake Community Project, $400,000 for an elevated water storage tank and so on. This time, folks, he's swinging for the stands. He wants $1.7 billion of your money.
Bond wants this cash to vamp up the Mississippi waterway that connects the grain and corn of the Midwest to the export hub of New Orleans. The barges that navigate this route have to pass through a series of locks, and the locks aren't long enough for Bond's liking. Longer locks would mean less congestion, lower shipping rates and savings for Missouri's farmers. Their construction would also generate 48 million hours of work for carpenters, according to Bond's office.
Would the reduced congestion justify the $1.7 billion that Bond would like to spend? Funny you should ask. This issue has been studied and studied for more than a decade, and there's no way the numbers work. The fact that Bond still champions this project shows how senior senators don't feel obliged to put the national interest first. If something is good for their state, they are capable of anything.
A cost-benefit analysis of Bond's scheme was first commissioned 11 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would implement it. The study concluded that lock expansion could not be justified since rather cheap innovations -- congestion charges, for example -- could reduce delays more simply. Besides, the idea that river congestion constituted a significant burden on farm exporters seemed a stretch. Even assuming a sharp increase in river traffic, congestion was projected to add just a few percent to the cost of a barge trip to New Orleans. The final price of American corn in an export market such as Japan would be up a fraction of 1 percent.
The Army Corps, which likes to please nice senators such as Bond, got rid of the author of that study. Soon a new and suitably supportive analysis appeared, but the National Academy of Sciences reviewed its methodology and pointed out that it was bogus. The Corps said sorry and produced yet a third study; again the National Academy declared that its calculations were dishonest. No matter how hard the Army Corps tried, in other words, there was no way to come up with credible projections that justified blowing vast sums on Bond's beloved waterway.
In a sane world, that would have been the end of the story. But the Senate, remember, is not always sane, and Bond is rallying support for his Mississippi project. With the backing of several Midwestern senators from both parties, he's aiming to ram authorizing legislation through a key subcommittee this month. His scheme would be the most expensive waterway project in American history.
How can Bond shrug off a decade of cost-benefit analysis? By declaring, quite simply, that such studies are irrelevant. Projecting future barge traffic and assigning values to congestion is just too complicated, you see. Statesmen don't sit about projecting the future; they shape it. Never mind that the nation faces terrifying deficits and is fighting two wars. Bond is a statesman. Bond is bold. Bond is thoroughly undaunted.
All of which raises a question for Republican Bill Frist, the majority leader in the Senate. Just as Frist should rescue the stalled Africa bill or forfeit the pro-Africa credentials that he's burnished, so he should do something about this farcical Bond pork or forfeit any residual claim to fiscal responsibility. Already, Frist has fought the moderates in his own party who've sought to rein in tax cuts. Is Frist really going to allow a $1.7 billion taxpayer rip-off to be treated as a serious measure?
© 2004 The Washington Post Company