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  • Key stories on the highway bill

  •   Highway Earmarks Hold Record Pork

    By Eric Pianin and Charles R. Babcock
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, April 1, 1998; Page A01

    There's more to the mammoth federal highway bill steaming through the House this week than funds for traditional concrete and asphalt projects. Consider, for example, the $1.6 million that was added for the Missouri Botanical Garden. Or the $500,000 to study pedestrian and vehicular access to the Kennedy Center here. Or the $3 million for medical research of spinal cord injuries.

    Or, for that matter, the $2.75 million inserted to build an access road to a baseball stadium in Dayton, Ohio, and the $3 million that was earmarked to produce a documentary for public television on the subject of "infrastructure awareness."

    The $217 billion, six-year highway bill contains historic sums for the pet highway and mass transit projects of House Republicans and Democrats, twice as much pork as all the other highway bills of modern times put together. Not coincidentally, its backers believe it will be approved in the House today by an overwhelming majority.

    But the bill has touched off a divisive debate within the ruling Republican Party over the wisdom of engaging in a pork-barrel spending spree so soon after putting the nation's finances in order. The Senate, for example, on March 12 passed a version of the bill that has little pork-barrel spending and is committed to trying to minimize that type of earmarked spending when the two chambers meet in conference. Moreover, some, including House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), have attacked the House bill as an "abomination" of pork-barrel spending and charged that it undermines the very principles of the GOP's conservative revolution.

    "It's a strange day when President Clinton is acting more fiscally responsible than the GOP Congress, but such is life in this strange city," Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said this week.

    "The earmarking is reprehensible," said Daniel Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank. "It's the traditional logrolling -- I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine -- that created the welfare state and that voters probably didn't think would increase when the Republicans took over Congress."

    While 95 percent of overall highway spending under the House bill would be distributed to states according to a formula, about $9 billion was earmarked for 1,467 individual highway, bridge, bike path and economic development projects in nearly 400 congressional districts, while $9 billion more was set aside for many hundreds of mass transit and bus projects.

    By contrast, only 10 highway projects worth $386 million were inserted in the 1982 highway bill, the first time Congress specifically earmarked funds for favored or politically influential House members.

    Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy group, said he was stunned by the sheer magnitude of the pork claimed by individual members, which he said flies in the face of GOP efforts to return control of spending to states and local authorities.

    "The fact is the people who can best determine whether Akron needs an access road are the citizens of Akron and the Ohio transportation department," he said. "Instead, the highway bill has become a way to pipeline dollars back to the districts just before an election."

    House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chief author of the bill, dismissed much of the criticism as a "cheap shot" and said members are entitled to influence a small percentage of the total spending.

    "Angels in heaven don't decide where highways are going to be built," Shuster said. "This is a political process. And it is not unreasonable for the members of Congress . . . to identify 5 percent of the pot for high-priority projects that are important in their districts."

    Overall, the legislation would boost spending for highways and mass transit by 43 percent over the next six years, or nearly $30 billion more than allowed under last year's balanced budget agreement. Under the budget rules, the excess spending must be offset with cuts in other programs, although House GOP leaders are refusing to say where those cuts will be made until they meet in conference with the Senate to negotiate a final version of the highway bill.

    There are multiple varieties of pork layered throughout the House bill, much of it for relatively small amounts of money. One form is traditional: money designated for specific roads and bridges, cloverleafs, causeways, pedestrian bridges, bike paths, rail crossings, traffic signals and even studies.

    Among those 1,467 earmarks are $24 million to replace the crumbling, 61-year-old Missisquoi Bay Bridge in far northwestern Vermont, which local officials described as an accident waiting to happen. There is also $5.8 million for traffic signal system improvements in Compton, Calif., $26 million for an Interstate 95 interchange in New Haven, Conn., and $1.5 million for a "pipeline express study" through the Texas Transportation Institute.

    Shuster, who helped pioneer his committee's extensive use of earmarks, inserted more than 130 projects worth $640 million for Pennsylvania alone, including $800,000 for renovating the train station in Gettysburg and $7 million for a transportation museum as part of a proposed Allentown redevelopment project.

    Another form of pork is funding for research projects at universities or institutes in favored lawmakers' districts. For example, Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), senior Democrat on the committee, secured $12 million to continue funding an institute for "intelligent transportation systems" at the University of Minnesota, and $9 million to establish a center for national scenic byways in Duluth.

    Shuster set aside $10 million to start "an advanced traffic monitoring and emergency response center" at Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, in his district. The depot is closing.

    Shuster, who is a member of the Kennedy Center board of directors, added the $500,000 to study how to improve access to the performing arts center on the Potomac. He also was instrumental in adding $30 million for transportation-related exhibits and research to the Smithsonian Institution budget, according to museum spokesman David J. Umansky.

    There is also money earmarked for another local institution, Georgetown University, though it is not mentioned by name in the bill. The school would receive $29 million to continue funding research on buses that run on methanol-powered fuel cells. The program began in 1983 and has been earmarked for federal funds, without competition, since 1987, according to a Transportation Department official.

    Staff researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report.

    Pulling Pork

    The number of earmarked "demonstration projects" in highway reauthorization bills has grown dramatically over the years.

    Value in '98 dollars:

    '82      10               $642 million
    '87      152              $1.8 billion
    '91      539              $7.3 billion
    '98      1,467            $9 billion
    

    SOURCES: Cato Institute, based on General Accounting Office data; House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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