- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

“Everything is on the table,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert asserted after a three-hour budget meeting among House Republicans on Feb. 11. “Nothing is sacred in this business,” he added, including spending for national defense, homeland security and mandatory entitlements. With this year’s budget deficit forecast to exceed $500 billion and conservative groups in an uproar over the breakdown in spending discipline in a Republican-controlled Congress, Mr. Hastert wanted to signal that no program would be automatically immune from Congress’ newly sharpened budget knife.

Well, not exactly. The highway-and-transit authorization bill, one of the first pieces of legislation Congress has considered since President Bush released his budget Feb. 2, qualifies as a first-class budget buster. And both bodies of Congress, in the spirit of bipartisanship that evades most other legislation, seem determined to ignore White House warnings of a veto in order to deliver record-shattering transportation projects to the folks back home in an election year.

Mr. Bush’s 2005 budget proposed a nearly 20 percent increase in spending, raising the six-year authorization total to $256 billion, which already exceeded projected federal gas-tax revenues by more than $20 billion. The day after Mr. Hastert announced the House GOP’s newfound spending resolve, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a transportation bill that would spend $318 billion over six years — a cool $100 billion, or 46 percent, more than the previous six-year authorization (whose own spending increases reflected a 40 percent rise from its predecessor). With Republican senators supporting the bill by a 2-to-1 margin, the measure sailed through the Senate in a 76-21 veto-proof vote.

Yesterday, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure began marking up its own bill, which recommended including nearly $320 billion (or $64 billion per year) for road and transit spending in the five-year budget resolution that Congress will later consider. In a recent effort to defend his budget-busting proposal, Committee Chairman Don Young noted that “new road miles have increased by only 6 percent since 1970,” while licensed drivers increased by 71 percent, registered vehicles doubled and miles driven have jumped by nearly 150 percent. With traffic congestion worsening throughout that period, the Heritage Foundation astutely observed that Mr. Young’s spending rationale in fact represented “a devastating critique of the federal highway program’s performance over the past three decades.” Throughout that period, the program has spent a staggering $700 billion in inflation-adjusted taxpayer dollars in order to deliver a 6 percent increase in road miles. Clearly, a complete overhaul of transportation spending is warranted.

If “everything is on the table” and if “nothing is sacred,” as Mr. Hastert asserted, then he and his colleagues need to make some space on that table, so this pork-riddled budget-buster can be whittled down to a size much closer to what President Bush proposed.

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