March 30, 1998
Kwame Holman gives an update on the senate's debate over the Intermodal Surface Transportation & Efficiency Act (ISTEA) that is aimed at improving roads and bridges in the United States.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD, (D) West Virginia: Highways first? You bet. I believe in highways first.
KWAME HOLMAN: Among his Senate colleges, Robert Byrd of West Virginia is considered a champion of securing federal dollars for projects back home, but a few weeks ago, when the Senate began debate on a bill aimed at improving roads and bridges throughout America, Sen. Byrd fought to get extra money to send to all 50 states.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Fixing potholes and pavement may not be glitzy, may not be sexy, but attending to our nation's transportation system is a basic fundamental need. It is job one.
KWAME HOLMAN: Unlike most issues Congress debates each year, transportation legislation has no political affiliation. Roads and highways cross party lines. And this year in particular, with the federal deficit zeroed out for the first time in 30 years, even the most budget conscious members are willing to spend money.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI, Chairman, Budget Committee: When we have an economy as robust as ours is today, it is not time to let up on our road building. It's time to build more efficient roads and roads that are needed and to try to get traffic jams and congestion off our roads.
KWAME HOLMAN: When it came to the Senate floor earlier this month, ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation & Efficiency Act, called for spending $147 billion over six years to build new highways and to fix old ones. That figure was set in the historic balanced budget agreement of last summer. Sen. Byrd argued more money was needed, money, for instance, to complete the Appalachian regional highway system that runs through 13 states, including West Virginia.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Twenty-two million people in Appalachia know the difficulty in getting to work, in getting to school, in getting to hospital, in getting to child care clinics, in getting to church, and in getting back home.
KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Senator Phil Gramm said more highway money was needed to handle increased truck traffic across the Mexican and Canadian borders, resulting from the NAFTA trade agreement.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM, (R) Texas: It's not just debate about highways versus other things. It is the debate about basic honesty in government because, you see, we collect taxes specifically for the purpose of building roads.
KWAME HOLMAN: Those taxes are collected at the gas pump. The federal government gets 18.3 cents for every gallon of gasoline sold. All of the money goes into the highway trust fund, but beginning back in 1990, the federal government began spending that money on things other than highways.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: They've been rustling our cattle. They've been taking money that's been collected in taxes on gasoline, put into the highway trust fund to spend on roads, and they've been spending it on other things. In any other business, except government, you might actually go to jail for doing something like that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Under pressure from senators from both parties Senate leaders agreed to spend more of the money in the trust funds, adding nearly $26 billion to the ISTEA bill for highway construction. But senators from states with big urban centers, like New York's Alfonse D'Amato, argued more money also was needed to upgrade some of the country's aging mass transit systems.
SEN. ALFONSE D'AMATO, (R) New York: It will be absolutely unacceptable to say that 70 percent of the mass transit riders to the communities that carry 70 percent, that as it relates to additional funds you can't have any more.
KWAME HOLMAN: And so the $36 billion that had been set aside for mass transit projects quickly became $41 billion and, not to be spent just to improve older systems, but to build new ones as well.
SEN. ROD GRAMS, (R) Minnesota: If mass transit programs are to be effective, well, then the funding needs to go to the cities and regions of our country that are the fastest growing and drastically need this transit funding.
KWAME HOLMAN: By the time the Senate voted on its transportation bill earlier this month, the cause of ISTEA had ballooned from the original $147 billion to $214 billion. And the bill was approved overwhelmingly.
SPOKESMAN: The yays are 96. The nays are four. The amendment is agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: While the Senate debated, refined, and approved its transportation bill over the course of several weeks, the House of Representatives hopes to do all of that over the next two days. It's expected to be a long, spirited session, with a small but determined group of Republicans and Democrats trying to set up road blocks. But none of the opposition will come from this group. This is the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which last week approved and sent to the House floor a transportation bill that spends $3 billion more than the Senate bill, giving a little more to highways, a little less to mass transit. The vote was 69 to zero. And while the Senate has ISTEA, the House calls its bill BESTEA, Building Efficient Surface Transportation & Equity Act, or as one member put it--
REP. JAMES OBERSTAR, (D) Minnesota: Bud E. Shuster Transportation for All Eternity Act.
KWAME HOLMAN: Bud Shuster, the Republican chairman, is revered by members of his committee. He demanded more transportation spending than Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders were willing to give, and eventually he got it.
REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: You have led this committee through some of the most turbulent waters and most difficult times under extraordinary circumstances, and we're proud, every one of us, the leadership that you've provided for this committee.
KWAME HOLMAN: The opposition to the House Transportation Bill will come in part from a group of moderate Democrats, who have their own meaning for BESTEA.
REP. DAVID OBEY, (D) Wisconsin: That is better known as the Budget Busting & Excessive Spending at the Expense of Education Act.
KWAME HOLMAN: They complain the billions in extra spending Chairman Shuster was given will come at the expense of unspecified and probably more deserving programs.
REP. DAVID OBEY: What that committee is proposing with the blessing of the Republican leadership in the House blows up the budget process. It takes virtually all of the resources available for anybody's priorities and uses those resources only for one priority, highways.
REP. JOHN SPRATT, (D) South Carolina: That's why we say it's time to go back to the drawing board, time to do this right, time to follow established procedures in regular order, do the budget resolution first, establish the offsets, and decide just then how much can go to transportation.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Shuster also is being opposed by members of his own party, who charge his transportation bill contradicts the Republican ideal of smaller government and less spending.
REP. JOHN KASICH, Chairman, Budget Committee: We have a saying where I come from that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered. And, frankly, this bill really is a hog. It is way over the top. We believe there is too much spending. We believe this bill is, in fact, an abomination. We came to Washington to change the culture of this town. And, frankly, this bill, we believe is a significant detour from where our party has been going in the past.
REP. STEVE LARGENT, (R) Oklahoma: I think this entire process is what our country's fed up with, and it's everything that I ran against when I came to office in 1994. And I can tell you that it makes me sick to my stomach to be a part of it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Oklahoma Republican Steve Largent, like several members from both parties, said he was offered funding of transportation projects in his home district in exchange for his support of the bill.
REP. STEVE LARGENT: And our office was approached and offered $15 million for projects in Tulsa, and I told them my vote was not for sale. They were not--it was not an offer for specific projects. It was just $15 million dangling, cash, for projects for the 1st Congressional District.
KWAME HOLMAN: So-called demonstration projects have been added to every federal transportation bill in the last 25 years. Critics called them the best example of pork barrel politics, money sent to a member's home district for needless projects in order to lock in the member's support for the bill. There are 1400 demonstration projects in the House Transportation Bill, and Chairman Shuster defends all of them.
REP. BUD SHUSTER, Chairman, Transportation Committee: These decisions as to where to build highways and transit systems are not made by angels up in heaven. It's part of the political process, and 88 percent of that process goes back to the states to be made; 7 percent of it goes downtown to the Department of Transportation; and 5 percent of the decisions made by the members of the Congress who have to cast the tough votes to get it done. Even though we recognize this, we have also implemented a very stringent vetting process for these high priority projects--a 14-point process where any project submitted to the committee had to meet tests of these 14 points, perhaps the most significant of which is to have the support of the Secretary of Transportation from the state involved. And so for that reason these are--these projects have been vetted more carefully than any projects in any previous bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, even if Chairman Shuster's transportation bill loaded with demonstration projects is approved by the House, it's in for a showdown with the Senate.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Mr. President, this is offensive. I'll do everything in my power to make sure that such outlandish action is not condoned by the Senate. deadbeat airline now has a billion dollars in the bank.
KWAME HOLMAN: Arizona Republican John McCain led the fight against demonstration projects and Senators banned them from their bill. More than likely, the dispute will have to be decided in a conference between the House and Senate before the new transportation bill can become law.