Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A lot of those billboards posted at public construction sites that say “Your Tax Dollars At Work” need to be replaced with signs that read “Wasting Your Money.”

This is the sad but inescapable conclusion after thumbing through the 2,000-plus pages of the $286 billion transportation bill that President Bush signed yesterday — legislation that Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona correctly called “a monstrosity” stuffed with outrageous, waste-ridden pork barrel projects that often have nothing to do with roads.

The bill is larded with tens of billions of dollars in dubious public projects sought by a variety of special interest pleaders. The provisions are called “earmarks” because they’ve been inserted into the bill by lawmakers for a specific client back home.

No one in Congress has railed against these spending abuses more than Mr. McCain, who deserves the fulsome praise of every taxpayer whose pockets are being picked by lawmakers for their own political benefit. He has gone to the Senate floor each year to denounce these bills, but each year the abuses have gotten worse — much worse.

In 1982, the transportation bill contained 10 earmarks costing $386 million. By 1987, they had grown to 152 earmarks, costing $1.4 billion. In 1991, the number mushroomed to 538, costing $6 billion. Last year’s bill included 1,850 earmarks that fleeced taxpayers of $9 billion.

The bill Mr. Bush just signed contained, at last count, over 6,300 earmark projects that totaled a whopping $20 billion.

The list is nauseating in its fiscal thievery and greed. Here’s a sampling of some of its worst abuses:

• $18.75 million to build a bridge that will join the Island of Gravina, with a population of less than 50 people, to Ketchikan, Alaska, a project that is known on Capitol Hill as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

• $2.32 million for aesthetic landscaping along the Ronald Reagan Freeway on Route 118, something the late president, who built his political career on fighting wasteful spending, would have opposed.

• $480,000 to restore a historic warehouse along the Erie Canal in Lyons, N.Y.

• $20 million for a Magnetic Levitation Transportation System between Las Vegas and Primm, Nev.

• $600,000 for High Knob Horse Trails to install riding paths in the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

• $1.6 million for the Blue Ridge Music Center in Connecticut.

• $200,000 for a Deer Avoidance System aimed at keeping deer away from milepost markers in New York and Pennsylvania.

• $1.2 million for planning, design and engineering of The American Road at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

• $1.28 million for the Cultural and Interpretive Center in Richland, Wash.

• $1 million for a pedestrian waterfront walkway in Oswego, N.Y.

• $400,000 for a jogging, bicycle and trolley trail in Columbus, Ga.

• $3 million for dust control along rural roads in Arkansas.

• $850,000 for the Red River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Louisiana.

Who puts projects like this in the transportation bill? Lawmakers who have a virtual free hand in writing the bill (as if it were their own personal campaign checkbook) are responsible for a lot of the abuse.

People like Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. Alaska is the third least-populated state, but Mr. Young made sure it was the fourth highest in the earmarks it received — $941million, to be precise — and to promote himself in the process.

One of the bill’s earmarks: $231 million for a bridge near Anchorage that will be named “Don Young’s Way.”

Rep. Nick Rahall, West Virginia Democrat, is a top-ranking member of the committee, too, and he got $16 million in the bill for the Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University.

What is especially appalling is the brazen way lawmakers are allowed to stick any kind of spending provision in the bill that is not germane to the legislation.

There is, for instance, $2 million for a wood products demonstration at the University of Maine, and $5 million for a study of earthquake hazards at universities in Nevada and Buffalo.

Mr. Bush, who has yet to veto a single bill during his presidency, was urged by spending critics to veto this bill but he signed it in the end, after threatening a veto if House-Senate negotiators did not reduce the bill’s burgeoning costs.

His budget had proposed $284 billion and the bills that went into a conference to iron out differences far exceeded that. After some cuts that brought the bill down to within $2 billion of Mr. Bush’s target, he signed it, believing it would boost construction employment and further strengthen the economy.

But the waste-filled bill that he signed is an abomination that cries out for budget reform to stop such abuses in the future. Earmarks should be flatly forbidden. Provisions must be germane to the bill. The president should be given a line-item veto to eliminate extraneous spending.

The budget-busting level of pork that Congress is greedily feeding upon is enough to make you sick. When will it be enough to make them stop?

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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