- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

WILMINGTON, N.C. — I realize Washington considers everybody who lives beyond the capital Beltway a bunch of know-nothin’ hayseeds from the middle of nowhere, but, hey, we hayseeds pay Washington’s bills. And, frankly, Washington’s sense of priorities these days seem screwy.

The several hundred thousand people who make their homes in southeastern North Carolina, like those who live in other towns and cities across the United States, occasionally want or need to travel. That means hours on the interstate (in our case, I-40, which connects with the national nightmare known as I-95) or a trip to the airport. Not once has anybody in this area booked a trip to Mars, according to local travel agents.

So it is difficult to understand how the White House, after presiding over a 30 percent increase in federal spending during President Bush’s first term, pushing President Clinton’s final $1.86 trillion budget to a proposed $2.4 trillion in fiscal 2005, can claim it now has fiscal religion.

Worse, after signing an $820 billion “omnibus” spending bill just weeks ago that finances an estimated 8,000 pork-barrel projects, the White House now wants to put the squeeze on virtually everything not related to national defense and homeland security, while at the same time proposing a manned mission to Mars that aerospace executives say could cost $150 billion or more over the next 10 years. Do they really think we’re this dumb?

Government belt-tightening should be a cause for taxpayer cheer. And to his credit, Mr. Bush in his record fiscal 2005 budget seeks to eliminate more than 60 outdated, ineffective or redundant federal programs. But the administration’s 11th-hour effort to demonstrate concern about the way Washington spends our tax money seems a bit strained and arbitrary as well.

Consider just one example: Government and industry estimate that economic and population growth will require the United States to triple its “air traffic capacity” in the next 15 to 20 years. Yet, the same White House that wants to send a man to Mars has proposed a $393 million cut in the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget for modernizing the air traffic control system, which was in critical condition even before September 11.

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association — a labor union, with an obvious interest in increased spending — this would represent a 16 percent cut. An Associated Press analysis places the cut at 13.6 percent. Either way, the numbers do not compute with the expectations.

Every windbag in Washington loves to toss around variations of the word “priority,” but few seem capable of “prioritizing.” So let me offer lawmakers some information, courtesy of the Census Bureau’s “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003,” to help them prioritize as they go through their annual budget machinations:

Fact No. 1: There are approximately 19,000 airports in the United States. We even have one in Wilmington, pretentiously called Wilmington International. (Note: nearly 14,000 of the 19,000 are private).

Fact No. 2: U.S. airlines currently schedule some 9 million aircraft departures each year.

Fact No. 3: These same airlines carry some 612 million paying passengers annually.

Fact No. 4: The busiest U.S. airport is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, which was used by approximately 35 million passengers in 2002.

Fact No. 5: The number one route is New York-Fort Lauderdale, which is flown by 3.2 million passengers each year.

Fact No. 6: More than 250 million of us do not enjoy the same travel options as government officials, members of Congress and the residents of Washington, New York and Los Angeles, all of whom have the choice of several airports and hundreds of flights each day.

Fact No. 7: There will be zero aircraft departures for Mars in fiscal years 2005 through 2020.

So let’s get a grip. The United States can’t triple the number of aircraft flights, slash funds needed to update the air traffic control system, maintain air safety standards and simultaneously pump $150 billion or more into a pie-in-the-sky mission to Mars.

You don’t have to be a Washington think tank executive or a Harvard MBA to see that the priorities are wrong and the numbers don’t add up. Even my friends at Folks Cafe on Princess Street have figured this one out. And the prevailing opinion is: Once again, we taxpayers are being abandoned on the runway.

Herb B. Berkowitz, a former vice president of the Heritage Foundation, now lives in the New South, where he is a public relations consultant.

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