History hasn't left us with the name of the first member of Congress to attach an obscure rider to an unrelated bill. No doubt his colleagues were piqued -- first because he did it, and then because they didn't think of it themselves.
No one knows riders better than Rep. James J. Howard. The New Jersey Democrat was the first to trash other lawmakers for sneaking increased highway speeds into a spending bill before Christmas. But Howard was busy at the same time drafting his own rider on behalf of the billboard industry, one of his most generous contributors.
Howard harshly criticized his colleagues over the rider permitting 65 mph speed limits on some state highways. He is a strong supporter of the 55 mph limit. "What outrages me is that this major policy change happened in an appropriations bill," Howard huffed to Time magazine.
Howard's outrage is understandable. Advocates of good government often say a spending bill is no place to decide policy issues that deserve plenty of debate and the hot lights of news media attention.
Our associate Stewart Harris traced Howard's outrage: It didn't go far. Howard managed to swallow his outrage long enough to try to attach his own rider to the same appropriations bill, and then to a budget reconciliation bill. The rider, which did not make it into either bill, would have allowed billboard owners to collect money when local governments order them to reduce the size of their signs. As Howard sees it, this is tantamount to taking someone's land, and the billboard companies should get some money from it.
But Howard and his colleagues on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee are about the only ones outside the sign industry who think so. The Transportation Department recently told Howard that the question of compensation is legally up to the states. In a letter, the new transportation secretary, James H. Burnley IV, said billboard owners are to be paid when a sign is removed in the name of the Highway Beautification Act. The law does not address what happens when local governments reduce a sign's size to comply with local laws. Courts have repeatedly upheld Burnley's view.
This is not the first time Howard has pushed a law to benefit billboard barons while ignoring court decisions and advice from the Transportation Department. After we exposed Howard in 1986, he withdrew a proposal that would have paid a North Dakota sign owner for billboards slated for the wrecking ball. The sign owner had waived his right to compensation in exchange for permission to put up the signs. A state court had ruled that he had no right to compensation, and the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal, letting the ruling stand. That didn't stop Howard from trying to get the man his money through an act of Congress.
Why is Howard so gung-ho for the billboard industry? Federal Election Commission records show that he received about 8 percent of his campaign money -- $49,225 -- from the industry in 1985 and 1986. Close to half of the people on Howard's list of contributors during that time were connected to the billboard business, the records show.
Howard's staff said the contributions have nothing to do with his support of the billboard industry.