Rep. Jeff Flake, a freethinker in the Arizona Republican tradition, took the House floor last Friday to interrupt the celebration over the breaking of the legislative logjam before the long summer recess began. "The transportation bill," he said, "ought to carry the same warning that drivers see on their rearview mirror: Items are larger than they appear." Flake exposed as phony an eleventh-hour spending cut in the elephantine measure.
"Mr. President," Flake declared, "please veto this bill." George W. Bush will do no such thing, though it exceeds his spending limits. On the contrary, the White House brandishes the pork-filled transportation bill as one of several summer "victories." It joins the energy bill, whose inclusions and omissions raise Republican eyebrows, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), bought at the cost of still undetermined trade-offs.
I had breakfast last week with several conservative House Republicans as they awaited President Bush's address to GOP members pleading with them to vote for CAFTA. Their mood was not celebratory as they mourned the absence of radical reductions in spending and of radical tax reform. Congress has yet to make permanent the Bush tax cuts, and prospects for Social Security reform remain bleak. The lawmakers consider this a joint failure, with responsibility shared by the president and the congressional leadership.
The White House "victory" claim on the transportation bill is audacious. In 2004 Bush drew a $256 billion line in the sand, threatening a veto of either the Senate ($318 billion) or House ($275 billion) version. Just one year later, Bush's line advanced to $284 billion. The bill passed last week was listed at $286.5 billion. But as Flake pointed out, it really is $8.6 billion higher than that because of a budget gimmick.
The package's contents, however, are worse than its label. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the 1986 bill because it contained some 150 items earmarked by individual lawmakers. The 2005 bill to be signed by Bush contains nearly 6,000 such earmarks. Many are pure pork: non-highway, non-rapid-transit projects, including some that members of Congress accepted as their own after being sold on them by a professional lobbyist.
A random glance at a few earmarks and their House earmarkers shows that pork is bipartisan: $8 million for a parking facility at Harlem Hospital in New York (Democrat Charles Rangel); $2.6 million for walkway and bikeway improvements along the New York City Greenway System in Coney Island (Democrat Jerrold Nadler); $1.3 million for sidewalk lighting and landscaping at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles (Democrat Henry A. Waxman); $1.3 million for a day-care center and park-and-ride facility in Champaign, Ill. (Republican Tim Johnson); $480,000 to rehabilitate a historic warehouse in Lyons, N.Y. (Republican James T. Walsh); $200,000 for a historic trolley project at Issaquah, Wash. (Republican Dave Reichert).
The redoubtable Jeff Flake voted against the transportation bill last Friday. So did two standing committee chairmen, Jim Sensenbrenner and John Boehner ("This is fiscal discipline?" Boehner asked). They belonged to a lonely bunch, outvoted 412 to 8 in the House.
As for the energy bill, it excluded anything that might provoke a Senate Democratic filibuster, such as Bush's showcase energy proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It included a mandate forcing the use of ethanol in gasoline and launching a study of producing ethanol from sugar cane. The energy bill's sugar provisions sweetened CAFTA, though it is not yet known how much pork was dispensed to facilitate passage after midnight last Thursday.
The legislative mood on Capitol Hill was reflected in the session's closing hours last week when Sen. Max Baucus, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, inserted a provision in the highway bill that would have the effect of keeping open Malmstrom Air Force Base in his state, Montana. That would have destroyed the entire military base-closing program, whose intent is to keep individual members of Congress from tinkering. This extraordinary earmark actually passed the Senate before being discovered in the House. "I'm sorry the House acted as if it knows what is best for Great Falls, Montana," said an unrepentant Baucus. But even this Congress apparently observes some limits.
(c) 2005 Creators Syndicate Inc.