TOPICS > Politics

Transportation Bill

August 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Ronald Reagan Freeway — California State Highway 118 — wends its way past the former president’s final resting spot in Simi Valley. Now, thanks to the transportation bill President Bush signed today, the namesake byway will soon be sprouting all kinds of greenery, as part of a $2.3 million landscaping makeover.

That’s just one of more than 6,300 pet congressional projects that tucked into the $286 billion measure. Its main purpose is to fund road and mass transit construction for the next six years.

The bill was more than two years in the making, the subject of much wrangling between a White House intent on containing its cost and lawmakers focused on bringing home lucrative projects to their constituents.

In the end, it passed both Houses with overwhelming majorities. Arizona Republican John McCain, one of just four ‘no’ votes in the Senate, noted the Reagan Freeway appropriation with some irony.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Here’s my favorite so far: $2,320,000 to add landscaping enhancements along — get this — the Ronald Reagan Freeway. I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say.

MARGARET WARNER: But today, President Bush said the bill would provide a timely and vitally needed economic boost.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If we want people working in America, we got to make sure our highways and roads are modern. We got to bring up this transportation system into the 21st century.

MARGARET WARNER: The money is expected to begin flowing soon. And for a closer look at what’s in this bill and some of the politics that shaped it, I’m joined by veteran Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Norm, how much of this, first of all, is pork versus basic transportation spending?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, of course, pork is in the eye of beholder. One person’s pork is another person’s vital project. But one good rule of thumb here is that these special projects — they’re called "earmarks" in the terms of the trade — which amount to about $24 billion of this $286.5 billion bill — about 8 percent — they’re not vetted by anybody, they’re just stuck in by individual lawmakers — would qualify by most definitions as pork.

MARGARET WARNER: So let’s look at the substance first. What is the country getting in real transportation projects for this $280 some billion?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, this is going to last over a five-year period. That’s the time in which we authorize projects, and of course, they’re across a wide range of things. It’s a three-year delay that we’ve taken before we’ve gotten to this.

This will take us to 2009, with a whole series of areas, including mass transit, which gets about 18.5 percent of this bill; new projects, which includes bridges, waterways, walkways, and a lot of new highways, significant amount of highway repair.

A lot of it is necessary stuff. The transportation network, including the highway network, is absolutely vital to the economy of the country, much less to individuals moving along it. But it’s more than that of course.

MARGARET WARNER: So will this spending do anything major to relieve the traffic congestion that plague so many of our viewers?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Frankly, probably not. It will help a little bit because we are going to see repairs of highways, and in some cases we’ll see new lanes. Localities have been given some authority and some inducement to create toll roads and special roadways and the like.

But this is not really aimed so much at a broad transportation policy to improve our quality of life as it should be.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, there is a big debate about whether new highways even relieve congestion or cause more.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yeah, and, you know, I think the biggest complaint that we could have with this bill — beyond the fact that there’s an awful lot of waste in here, you’ve got money that’s spent in areas that don’t meet anybody’s reasonable definition of priorities — is that we haven’t done this as part of a comprehensive transportation policy that looks at highways, waterways, air transportation and railways together and tries to make some kind of balance out of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you pointed out that this should have been done three years ago. What held it up?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, money is a part of it. When Congress started, the wish list was more than $375 billion. It’s still there, frankly, but President Bush — who hasn’t vetoed any bills yet — started out early on saying that if this bill isn’t held to a reasonable amount — $284 billion was the figure that he set — he would veto it.

So they’ve taken three years struggling with that. And then there’s one other element here, which is the distribution of the money to the states. This is paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund, 18.3 cents a gallon, basically, that we all put in from the money that we spend at the pump.

And of course states put in money — their citizens pay it. Then they get it back, and it’s a question of whether you get back close to what you’ve put in. The original bill, before this one, guaranteed states 90.5 cents on the dollar.

Now, they’ve struggled and they’ve agreed to give every state at least 92 cents on the dollar. It took them a long time to come up with that kind of a reasonable formula, and part of the deal was that every state would get at least 19 percent more than they got the last time.

MARGARET WARNER: And when they were having these debates, was is really basically about divvying up the pie, or was there the kind of substantive debate you’re talking about, about really what are the nation’s transportation needs? Are there new ways to meet them?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, you could make a case, at least, that some portion of the money in this bill was actually brought together in a reasonably thoughtful way by the members of the Public Works and Transportation Committee in the House — the relevant or equivalent committee in the Senate.

And then they distributed 8 percent, 10 percent or more in a kind of feeding frenzy at the trough. But as I say, the problem we have here is that to whatever degree this was carefully structured policy with tugging and hauling between states and localities over what they wanted and local politicians and Congress, it wasn’t put into the larger context of overall transportation.

So some people have declared victory. I think most people who follow transportation policy wouldn’t see this in a particularly positive light.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s talk about the 8 percent pork, that you define as pork. If John McCain’s favorite project is the Ronald Reagan Highway, what’s yours?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, there’s no question that the grand slam homerun of projects here is in Alaska, and no great coincidence, because the Chairman of the House Committee is Don Young of Alaska. It is $250 million, not $2.4 million — for a bridge, larger than the Golden Gate Bridge — that would go from Ketchikan, with a population of 8,000 to an island with a population of 50.

Now, the next favorite actually is also in Alaska: $3 million to produce a film on how Alaska spends its highway money.

MARGARET WARNER: No.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: So, there you go. Honest to God, I kid you not. Then you’ve got all kinds of money for walkways, one in Hoboken to honor Frank Sinatra, an elevated highway that’s going to be turned into a tunnel so that Donald Trump could build another building in New York.

We could spend a week on the NewsHour just going through things that on the surface, even if they have any merit, are certainly not a particularly good use of federal taxpayers’ money for what are purely local things, many of them kind of frivolous.

MARGARET WARNER: And did Democrats as well as Republicans share in this largess?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Absolutely. This is one instance, despite the votes of the four lonely members of the Senate and a few courageous people in the House — another one from Arizona, Floyd Flaig, actually a couple of committee chairs, including Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

Democrats and Republicans who are at odds with each other over everything in Congress, unite over these. The money — more of it went to Republicans, there are more of them, but it got distributed around pretty broadly.

There’s one other point to make here, Margaret, which is that, it’s not — this is a two-way street. The leaders in Congress have encouraged this kind of craziness of earmarking projects, in part because they can use it in both directions in other areas.

Three years of delay in this bill, but there was an extra day of delay in the House until they got the vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and some members who voted against them got money taken out that they’d expected to be put in –

MARGARET WARNER: From the highway bill.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: From the highway bill, and others who finally provided those votes at the end got a little bit of a reward.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess the way the system works. Norman Ornstein, thanks.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Sure.