Commentary

Don Young’s World

By Stephen Slivinski
This article originally appeared on Spectator.org on August 16, 2005.
When pondering the monstrosity that is the recently enacted federal highway bill, most observers will note how expensive it is but never really discern why it’s an indicator of a larger problem. Yes, on paper it will cost $286.4 billion. That’s 31 percent larger than the last highway bill in 1998, $30 billion more than the maximum amount the president threatened would trigger a veto last year, and $2 billion more than the White House was willing to accept earlier this year.

Unfortunately, the bill will really cost $295 billion, but it was made to look smaller by way of an accounting gimmick. The bill assumes that Congress will simply vote not to spend $8.5 billion on September 30, 2009, one day before the bill expires. It’s very unlikely that will ever happen. As a result, the bill will be $11 billion more expensive than President Bush said he would accept seven months ago. None of this, of course, stopped the president from signing the bill and thereby demolishing any credibility he might have to threaten vetoes of future spending bills — assuming he’d even want to.

The bill is filled to the brim with pork projects — it’s stuffed “like a turkey,” bragged Rep. Don Young of Alaska, House transportation committee chairman and the main beneficiary of some of the most expensive projects within, including a $231 million bridge in Anchorage to be named “Don Young’s Way.” Indeed, while projects earmarked for specific congressional districts are nothing new, the amounts in this bill are staggering. There are over 6,000 specific earmarks at a total cost of $24 billion. Contrast that with the 1,850 projects in the last highway bill. Or the 152 projects in the 1987 bill. President Ronald Reagan vetoed that bill. Those were the good old days.

All of this, however, is merely a symptom of two much larger problems. The first is structural. The Interstate Highway System has been complete since 1986. The federal fuel tax was supposed to sunset upon completion. Yet it’s still around and so is Congress’s power to dole out the cash it collects with it. Today the so-called highway trust fund looks more like a politician’s slush fund.

Most of the money is sent back to states through a formula that guarantees that at least 90.5 percent of the revenue from each state returns to that state. The current bill raises that level to 92 percent by 2009. What happens to the rest? At the expense of all other states, a very few politically powerful congressmen get to divvy it up. This benefits powerful incumbent politicians like Democratic senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, whose state receives close to $2 for each $1 his state contributes. Or Democratic senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, or Republican senator Ted Stevens of Alaska (member of the Senate Appropriations Committee), or GOP congressman Don Young of Alaska, just to name a few. Each state represented by them receives more than $2 for every $1 contributed. In the case of Alaska, the ratio is an astounding 5 to 1.

But how about letting each state keep all of the fuel tax money it collects? Supporters of limited government in the House, like Jeff Flake of Arizona and Scott Garrett of New Jersey, have promoted plans to get the federal government out of the highway business altogether by giving complete responsibility over road construction and maintenance to the states. This would allow states to keep all the money they collect in fuel taxes and decide how best to use that money.

Which leads us to the second real reason why the highway bill is such a disaster: the complete abandon of fiscal discipline by the Republican majority in Congress. The reform plans to devolve this power back to the states was an idea promoted originally by Reagan, and discussed during the early days of the Republican takeover of Congress in the mid-1990s. Yet this month it was the senior GOP members and the leadership who were fighting changes to the political patronage system fueled by the highway slush fund. Just as it has been senior Republicans during the past five years fighting all other attempts to cut spending or put a cap on the federal budget.

The Republicans are no longer the party of Reagan when it comes to the fight for limited government. It’s Don Young’s world, now. We’re just living in it.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute.