The highway bill seemed like such a good idea when it sailed through Congress this summer. But now Republicans who assembled the record spending package are suffering buyer's remorse.
The $286 billion legislation was stuffed with 6,000 pet projects for lawmakers' districts, including what critics denounce as a $223 million "Bridge to Nowhere" that would replace a 7-minute ferry ride in a sparsely populated area of Alaska. Usually members of Congress cannot wait to rush home and brag about such bounty -- a staggering number of parking lots, bus depots, bike paths and new interchanges for just about every congressional district in the country that added $24 billion to the overall cost of maintaining the nation's highways and bridges in the coming years.
But with spiraling war and hurricane recovery costs, the pork-laden bill has become a political albatross for Republicans, who have been promising since President Bush took office to get rid of wasteful spending.
"Does it make all the difference in the world? No," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of four senators who voted against the highway bill. "But there's a great deal of symbolism associated with whether we're going to add $24 billion to the debt in unwanted and unnecessary pork-barrel projects."
Conservative groups, government watchdogs and ordinary folks around the country are so offended by the size of the legislation -- signed into law by Bush in early August -- that efforts are underway in the House and the Senate to rescind or reallocate a portion of its funds.
Lawmakers say voters are stopping them back home to ask whether the "Bridge to Nowhere" is a joke or whether it actually exists. It is no joke. The project, championed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), would link tiny Ketchikan, with a population of 8,900, with its airport on Gravina Island -- population 50.
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who was instrumental in shaping the highway bill in the House, apologized for its excesses during an appearance on Thursday before the Heritage Foundation.
In a speech to a group of conservative academics and policy experts, DeLay blamed the runaway spending of recent years on minority Democrats. When he took questions, the first came from a senior official at the American Conservative Union, who asked DeLay, "How large does the Republican majority in the House and Senate need to be before Republicans act like the fiscal conservative I thought we were?"
"I'm not here to defend the highway bill," DeLay responded. He described the overall 1,000-page legislation, which funds major interstate, bridge and mass transit projects and distributes gasoline tax revenue to states according to a formula, as an important economic development tool. He conceded that Congress may have gone a bit overboard.
"Our responsibility, that frankly we didn't perform very well, is to make sure those are legitimate earmarks for legitimate reasons," DeLay said, referring to the pet projects.
McCain and six other Senate Republicans want to reallocate the pork dollars in the bill to help pay for the damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of eight House members who opposed the legislation, and who declined any special projects for his district, wants to rescind 10 percent of the bill's total cost and allow states to disregard the pet projects authorized by the legislation, and spend the money as they wish.
"My guess is that most states would gladly forgo 10 percent of their funding for the ability to make funding decisions," Flake said.
The Senate has already considered one proposal to scale back the legislation -- an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to cut funding for some of the projects special-ordered by Alaskan lawmakers and use the money saved to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain outside New Orleans. The I-10 bridge, a major transportation corridor, was shattered during the Katrina storm surge.
Coburn's bid failed, but it gained widespread attention and attracted 15 Senate "yes" votes, a landslide, considering the political clout of Stevens, a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a formidable force in Congress. In a display of outrage, Stevens threatened to resign from the Senate if Coburn's measure succeeded.
Stevens and other Alaska lawmakers have been masterful at steering federal aid to their thinly populated state. According to a tally by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, Alaska received $1 billion for 120 special projects. In total funding, it ranks third, behind California and Illinois.
The highway bill has long been a reliable source of pork-barrel spending, and it has been used by Republican and Democratic leaders to reward or punish rank-and-file members. President Ronald Reagan once vetoed a highway bill because it contained 152 pet projects. Despite the pork inflation, Bush had no complaints about the current package when he signed it on Aug. 10. "This bill upgrades our transportation infrastructure," he declared. "And it accomplishes goals in a fiscally responsible way."
That was before Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving tens of thousands homeless and requiring billions of dollars in unanticipated rebuilding costs. Trying to live within a tight budget, Republican leaders in the House and the Senate are in the process of pushing through politically difficult cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, farm subsidies and student loans.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group that funds like-minded candidates for Congress, has turned the highway legislation into a bumper sticker for the GOP's fiscal failings. "Too many Congressional Republicans have veered away from the limited government agenda that got them elected to the majority in Congress. They have approved pork-barrel highway bills worse than the Democrats used to give us," says one appeal to supporters.