Commentary

Congress’s Latest Christmas Tree Bill

How is a museum like a highway?

Answer: Both get lots of money in the “highway bill” that Congress is currently debating.

And not just one museum, either. The massive $284 billion spending bill includes $3 million for the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, where the Packard automobile was first produced. There’s also $1.5 million for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and $400,000 for the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, N.Y.

At least those museums have something to do with transportation, though that doesn’t quite explain why they should be paid for by federal income taxpayers. But there’s money for three children’s museums in the bill, as well, including $14 million for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Why are taxpayers in California and Texas and Massachusetts paying for a museum in Indianapolis?

The porkbarrel projects in this bill don’t stop with museums, of course. Members of Congress have loaded the bill with some 4,000 special projects for their states and districts—free money, it seems, that the senators and representatives can boast about back home. It’s Christmas in May.

Even the transportation projects don’t seem to have much national purpose. Perhaps the most egregious item is $125 million for a bridge linking Gravina Island to the town of Ketchikan in Alaska. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, federal taxpayers will eventually pay $315 million for this bridge. Here’s the deal: Ketchikan is a town of 8,000 people (13,000 in the whole county, and population is declining). Its airport is on the nearby Gravina Island. Right now you have to take a 7-minute ferry ride from the airport to the town. To save people that 7-minute ride, Alaska wants to build a $315 million bridge.

But even if Alaska wants to do it, why should Congress pay for it? Maybe because Alaska’s congressman, Don Young, is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Young managed to squeeze $722 million for Alaska into the bill.

But he’s not alone. The bill also includes

  • $2 million to construct a garage on the campus of Lipscomb University, a college in Nashville affiliated with the Churches of Christ;
  • $4 million for a graffiti-elimination program in Queens and Brooklyn;
  • $500,000 for sidewalks and landscaping in Glennville, Ga.
  • $1.5 million for horse trails in High Knob, Va.;
  • $850,000 for a bike and trolley path in Hattiesburg, Miss.;
  • $2 million for a parking facility in Bozeman, Mont.;
  • $14 million for reconstruction of a crosstown expressway in Oklahoma City.

Now you might say that if every state and city gets something out of the bill, then what’s the problem? But of course not every state gets an equal amount, or an amount equal to the taxes paid by its citizens. States with powerful congressmen like Don Young get more.

But even if it were fairly divided, why send the money on a round trip to Washington? Why not let city councils and state legislatures decide how best to spend their taxpayers’ money?

Local museums, parking garages, and crosstown expressways ought to be paid for locally. Last year’s budget bill included money for the construction of an additional lane to the off-ramp of the northbound Ventura Freeway at Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. A better example of a local project might be hard to imagine. Though the Gravina Island Bridge might top it.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has introduced a bill to turn over responsibility for highways and transportation to the states. He would also roll the federal gasoline tax back from 18 cents a gallon to 2 cents, allowing the states to raise gas taxes if necessary to fund projects locally. Some state legislatures have endorsed the idea, though other legislators like getting free money from Washington to build local projects.

As transportation economist Gabriel Roth writes in a Cato Institute study, “States fully responsible for their own roads would have stronger incentives to ensure that funds paid by road users were spent efficiently. For example, in the absence of federal grants for new construction, some states could prefer to better manage and maintain their existing roads rather than build new ones. Others might find ways to encourage the private sector to assume more of the burden of road provision—for example, by contracting with private firms to maintain their roads to designated standards or to provide new roads.”

Last year President Bush and Congress agreed to hold the highway bill to $256 billion, a vast sum of money in a budget already in deficit. This year Bush promised not to veto a bill that was $28 billion higher, at $284 billion. And on Wednesday the Senate passed a $295 billion bill.

If the Senate and the House agree on such a huge number, President Bush will face a test: Do his occasional veto threats mean anything? He hasn’t vetoed a single bill in more than four years; no president since John Quincy Adams has gone four years without a veto. With spending up 33 percent in four years, now would be a good time to tell Congress to consider new ideas that would be better for taxpayers and better for transportation.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and co-editor of the Cato Handbook on Policy.