Three years ago, President Bush went to war against congressional pork. His official 2003 budget even featured a color photo of a wind-powered ice sled -- an example of the pet projects and alleged boondoggles he said he would no longer tolerate.
Yesterday, Bush effectively signed a cease-fire -- critics called it more like a surrender -- in his war on pork. He signed into law a $286 billion transportation measure that contains a record 6,371 pet projects inserted by members of Congress from both parties.
At a short bill-signing event in Montgomery, Ill., Bush said the new law will allow the United States to modernize highways and roads in a fiscally responsible manner. "I'm proud to be here to sign this transportation bill, because our economy depends on us having the most efficient, reliable transportation system in the world," Bush said at a Caterpillar Inc. manufacturing plant.
Bush brushed aside pleas from taxpayer groups to veto the bill, which exceeded the $284 billion limit that he had vowed not to cross. The vast majority of the measure is geared toward road construction and public transit projects, with the money doled out over five years according to formulas designed to provide state and local governments considerable flexibility, Transportation Department officials said.
But hundreds of millions of dollars will be channeled to programs that critics say have nothing to do with improving congestion or efficiency: $2.3 million for the beautification of the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California; $6 million for graffiti elimination in New York; nearly $4 million on the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.; $2.4 million on a Red River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Louisiana; and $1.2 million to install lighting and steps and to equip an interpretative facility at the Blue Ridge Music Center, to name a few.
"There are nearly 6,500 member-requested projects worth more than $24 billion, nearly nine percent of the total spending," executives from six taxpayer and conservative groups complained in a letter to Bush urging that he use his veto pen for the first time. They noted that Reagan vetoed a transportation bill in 1987 because there were 152 such special requests, known in the parlance of congressional budgeting as "earmarks."
White House spokesman Trent Duffy replied that Bush pressured Congress to shave billions of dollars off the bill, and he said spending is "pretty modest" when spread out over five years. The transportation bill, at $57 billion a year, is a fraction of Medicare's $265 billion.
Besides, Duffy said, "the president has to work with the Congress."
But this is a significant shift from Bush's once-uncompromising stand on earmarks, which he said stymie experts in the federal agencies who otherwise could prioritize projects and fund only the most deserving. "Across the spectrum of transportation programs, congressional earmarks undercut the [Transportation] Department's ability to fund projects that have successfully proved their merits," the White House's glossy 2003 budget proposal declared, in one of several passages decrying such spending.
The wind-powered ice sled lampooned in the budget was for the sheriff of Ashland County, Wis. As it turned out, the funding had been secured by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), after an Ashland teenager fell through the ice of Lake Superior and drowned as sheriff's deputies, firefighters and his father watched helplessly from shore. The controversy illuminated a timeless truth of budget politics: What looks like frivolous spending to some eyes never looks that way to the people who requested it.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was especially offended by a fanciful drawing in the 2003 budget portraying the executive branch as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, "tied-up in a morass of Lilliputian do's and don'ts."
Byrd, who has been especially successful in steering money to his home state, angrily lectured then-Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill: "The Congress and certainly this Senate is not ordinary, and certainly not Lilliputian. We're senators."
After the 2003 confrontation over spending, White House budget officials reached a compromise of sorts with House Republican leaders, budget experts say. GOP leaders, especially in the House, wanted to continue earning lawmakers' loyalties and favors with pet projects, but Bush had to hold down domestic spending. The president would tone down his criticism of lawmakers' pet projects as long as Congress stayed roughly within the White House's bottom-line spending limits.
"They recognized they would be subject to a certain amount of pork" under that compromise, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "I'm not sure they were expecting as much as they're seeing now."
In the years since the 2003 budget was introduced, pork-barrel spending has climbed from $20.1 billion to $27.3 billion, with the number of earmarked projects rising from 8,341 to 13,999, according to Schatz's group.
In Illinois yesterday, Bush appeared with one of the most influential beneficiaries of earmarked spending: House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who secured $207 million for the "Prairie Parkway" through Kane and Kendall counties.
Jan Strasma, chairman of Citizens Against the Sprawlway, which has fought the project for years, said the parkway exemplifies precisely what Bush once vowed to combat. The Illinois Department of Transportation is only two years into a five-year study into the project and has not yet determined whether a highway is needed or improvements to existing roads would suffice.
"What we have here is the politicians and lobbyists in Washington doing transportation planning while transportation planning is going on at the state and local level," he said.
The new law enjoyed widespread backing in the House and Senate, a rare show of bipartisanship. And most lawmakers wanted to spend considerably more.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that it would take $500 billion over six years to maintain the country's weathered transportation system and make substantial progress against congestion. With that number out of reach, House Transportation Committee leaders produced legislation in 2002 that would have spent $375 billion, enough to maintain the existing system "and just begin to address congestion" issues, said committee spokesman Steve Hansen.
Bush at that time said he would reject any bill over $256 billion. Then he lifted his limit to $284 billion, and ultimately signed a bill with a price tag that is $286 billion only because of a gimmick that hides additional costs of up to $9 billion, Schatz said.
Bush's signature "encourages members of Congress to engage in pork-barrel spending on a massive scale, because there's no restraint on the part of the leadership or the White House," Schatz concluded. "I don't know how else to say it."
VandeHei reported from Chicago.