Road Bill Reflects The Power Of Pork

By Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Three years ago, President Bush went to war against congressional pork. His official 2003 budget even featured a color photo of a wind-powered ice sled -- an example of the pet projects and alleged boondoggles he said he would no longer tolerate.

Yesterday, Bush effectively signed a cease-fire -- critics called it more like a surrender -- in his war on pork. He signed into law a $286 billion transportation measure that contains a record 6,371 pet projects inserted by members of Congress from both parties.

At a short bill-signing event in Montgomery, Ill., Bush said the new law will allow the United States to modernize highways and roads in a fiscally responsible manner. "I'm proud to be here to sign this transportation bill, because our economy depends on us having the most efficient, reliable transportation system in the world," Bush said at a Caterpillar Inc. manufacturing plant.

Bush brushed aside pleas from taxpayer groups to veto the bill, which exceeded the $284 billion limit that he had vowed not to cross. The vast majority of the measure is geared toward road construction and public transit projects, with the money doled out over five years according to formulas designed to provide state and local governments considerable flexibility, Transportation Department officials said.

But hundreds of millions of dollars will be channeled to programs that critics say have nothing to do with improving congestion or efficiency: $2.3 million for the beautification of the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California; $6 million for graffiti elimination in New York; nearly $4 million on the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.; $2.4 million on a Red River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Louisiana; and $1.2 million to install lighting and steps and to equip an interpretative facility at the Blue Ridge Music Center, to name a few.

"There are nearly 6,500 member-requested projects worth more than $24 billion, nearly nine percent of the total spending," executives from six taxpayer and conservative groups complained in a letter to Bush urging that he use his veto pen for the first time. They noted that Reagan vetoed a transportation bill in 1987 because there were 152 such special requests, known in the parlance of congressional budgeting as "earmarks."

White House spokesman Trent Duffy replied that Bush pressured Congress to shave billions of dollars off the bill, and he said spending is "pretty modest" when spread out over five years. The transportation bill, at $57 billion a year, is a fraction of Medicare's $265 billion.

Besides, Duffy said, "the president has to work with the Congress."

But this is a significant shift from Bush's once-uncompromising stand on earmarks, which he said stymie experts in the federal agencies who otherwise could prioritize projects and fund only the most deserving. "Across the spectrum of transportation programs, congressional earmarks undercut the [Transportation] Department's ability to fund projects that have successfully proved their merits," the White House's glossy 2003 budget proposal declared, in one of several passages decrying such spending.

The wind-powered ice sled lampooned in the budget was for the sheriff of Ashland County, Wis. As it turned out, the funding had been secured by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), after an Ashland teenager fell through the ice of Lake Superior and drowned as sheriff's deputies, firefighters and his father watched helplessly from shore. The controversy illuminated a timeless truth of budget politics: What looks like frivolous spending to some eyes never looks that way to the people who requested it.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was especially offended by a fanciful drawing in the 2003 budget portraying the executive branch as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, "tied-up in a morass of Lilliputian do's and don'ts."

Byrd, who has been especially successful in steering money to his home state, angrily lectured then-Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill: "The Congress and certainly this Senate is not ordinary, and certainly not Lilliputian. We're senators."

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