The Great Train Robbery, 2006

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

THE $700 MILLION "Railroad to Nowhere" is this year's poster project for pork-barrel spending. The project was inserted by Mississippi Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott into the emergency spending bill that the Senate is debating this week, a measure that's supposed to pay for operations in Iraq and the cost of Hurricane Katrina cleanup. The railroad hardly offers a case for emergency spending -- or spending at all, for that matter. Yet the most disturbing aspect of the Great Train Robbery, 2006 edition, is that it's not an aberration.

The stretch of track the project would replace does go somewhere, but, like last year's Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere," the project reflects lawmakers' arrogance and irresponsibility. The track was indeed damaged by the hurricane -- and already repaired, at a cost of $300 million, which the report of the Senate Appropriations Committee (chaired by Mr. Cochran) somehow neglects to mention. Supporters argue that moving the rail line would protect it from future hurricanes, but, as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's rebuilding commission reported, "For decades local elected officials, community leaders, businesses and residents have unsuccessfully engaged in efforts" to move the tracks. What better opportunity than to label this decades-old effort an emergency -- and have the feds pick up the tab?

Supplemental spending bills are supposed to pay for emergencies that arise after regular spending bills are written. To some extent, they've always been useful vehicles for tucking in favored projects or accomplishing stray pieces of unrelated business. But in recent years, with the combination of tight regular spending caps and supplementals swelled to gargantuan sizes by the cost of military operations, they've become a central element of an off-the-books budgetary scam in which the true price of government is obscured and the need to make difficult trade-offs avoided.

The Bush administration is at fault here for insisting on financing the war, four years into the conflict, as if it were an emergency. As Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) noted in a Wall Street Journal column last week, the size of supplementals has grown nearly fivefold, from an annual average of $22 billion during the 1990s to more than $100 billion in recent years.

But Congress has seized gleefully on the opportunity to spend even more. After the Bush administration requested $92.2 billion in extra spending, the Senate Appropriations Committee matched that and raised it $14.3 billion. (The House actually came in just below the president's request.) CongressDaily calculated that the Senate added money at a rate of more than $80 million per minute during the two-hour markup.

Even more may end up being added on the Senate floor. We hope a majority will show enough restraint to strip out some of the worst pork. And we hope that President Bush, whose budget office said last night that he "strongly objects" to the railroad money and would veto the measure if it exceeds his original request, manages to stop this irresponsibility.

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