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Big-Government Conservatives

Monday, August 15, 2005

THREE TIMES in the past quarter-century, conservative leaders have promised to restrain wasteful government spending. President Ronald Reagan tried it and showed he was at least half-serious by vetoing the pork-laden 1987 transportation bill. House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried it and risked his party's electoral standing by battling to restrain the growth in programs such as Medicare. And President Bush has tried it, declaring on numerous occasions that he expected spending restraint from Congress. None of these efforts proved politically sustainable. As The Post's Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei reported Thursday, Mr. Bush's attempt at spending discipline has been especially limp.

Back in 1987, when Mr. Reagan applied his veto to what was generally known at the time as the highway and mass transit bill, he was offended by the 152 earmarks for pet projects favored by members of Congress. But on Wednesday Mr. Bush signed a transportation bill containing no fewer than 6,371 earmarks. Each one of these, as Mr. Reagan understood but Mr. Bush apparently doesn't, amounts to a conscious decision to waste taxpayers' dollars. One point of an earmark is to direct money to a project that would not receive money as a result of rational judgments based on cost-benefit analyses.

Mr. Bush, who had threatened to veto wasteful spending bills, chose instead to cave in. He did so despite the fact that in addition to a record number of earmarks the transportation bill came with a price tag that he had once called unacceptable. The bill has a declared cost of $286 billion over five years plus a concealed cost of a further $9 billion; Mr. Bush had earlier drawn a line in the sand at $256 billion, then drawn another line at $284 billion. Asked to explain the president's capitulation, a White House spokesman pleaded that at least this law would be less costly than the 2003 Medicare reform. This is a classic case of defining deviancy down.

The nation is at war. It faces large expenses for homeland security. It is about to go through a demographic transition that will strain important entitlement programs. How can this president -- an allegedly conservative president -- believe that the federal government should spend money on the Red River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Louisiana? Or on the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan? The bill Mr. Bush has signed devotes more than $24 billion to such earmarked projects, continuing a trend in which the use of earmarks has spread steadily each year. Remember, Republicans control the Senate and the House as well as the White House. So somebody remind us: Which is the party of big government?

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