Transportation earmarks turn taxpayers into roadkill

Independents are curious what will happen now that Republicans have won back some of their control over America’s coffers. Will elected leaders secure funding for public priorities without adding more debt or taxation? Will federal officials work with state and local governments to shore up budgets during this era of economic hardship?

Not if Republicans keep doing what both parties have done while in power – namely, replacing public needs with private wants. This habit stems from a bosom-buddy relationship between corporate interests and government authority. Call it “crony capitalism.” Politicians embrace it by spending our money in ways that bring them contributions, political favors, and business connections beyond their time in office.

Incoming Republican leadership in the House of Representatives pledged to end this crony approach to budget management. Buoyed by support from grassroots conservatives, Senator Jim DeMint waged a victorious battle within his party to ban earmarking from the budget process.

Such a ban could reduce the drain on taxpayer revenues if it is consistently applied. That’s a big “if,” it turns out. Prospects aren’t promising based on statements from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), a vocal player in the anti-earmark fight. Two weeks following the midterm elections, Bachmann told the Minnesota Star Tribune she wants to redefine earmarks to exclude transportation projects.

“I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark,” said Bachmann.

Say what? The national poster child of earmarks was a transportation project. Remember the Bridge to Nowhere? That boondoggle would have been a boon to contractors and real estate speculators in Alaska. Yet it was exposed as wasteful spending when the levees broke in Louisiana. A disaster showed how leaders play politics with new projects while neglecting the needs of existing infrastructure.

The clearest critique I’ve read concerning transportation earmarks comes from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog group in Washington.

Earmarks are an enormous problem for the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the various state and regional entities that have to deal with their funds being sliced and diced at the Congressional level. Because these funds are doled out based on seniority and committee membership, the most powerful lawmakers get the biggest share of the cash, no matter if those funds are going to the most important projects or not.

Bachmann didn’t talk about exempting earmarks for transportation until after the midterm elections, apparently after discussing the matter with Rep. John Mica (R-FL). He’s the fellow in line to become the new chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Mica has held office in Washington for 18 years. Before that he was in the Florida state legislature and a lead member of the state’s powerful Appropriations Committee. He’s an old hand with earmarking.

Same goes for Republican Ray LaHood, the former Illinois congressman who was tapped by President Obama to be his Secretary of Transportation. LaHood and Mica served together in the House since 1994, when their party took full control of Congress.

That was about the time I became a staunch supporter of transportation spending reform. I was living in northeast Tennessee when legislators proposed a new half-billion-dollar highway to rip through a stretch of farm country. The project was redundant, politically driven, and a waste of taxpayer money. Local voters rejected the project in a public referendum, but government started building it in sections anyway.

“It’s like our dog sneaking off,” said a Tennessee compatriot. “He goes a little ways, and we call him back. Then he waits till we’re not looking and goes a little further.”

Many citizens look the other way when it comes to highway spending. Talk of tough choices abounds when cutting costs for schools and other public services; but such scrutiny is seldom applied to transportation. Earmarking for new projects has been a protected source of political power.

Proof is embodied in the political career of Bud Shuster (R-PA). He is perhaps the granddaddy of transportation earmarks, which were rarely used in budgeting prior to funding of his Bud Shuster Bypass in 1976. The practice swelled under his leadership when he became chairman of the House Transportation Committee in 1994. When one of his bills was so bloated with pork that it exceeded the balanced budget agreement, in 1998, Congress took $15.5 billion dollars away from veteran’s health services to make up the difference.

That kind of runaway spending didn’t elicit much concern among conservatives. Neither did the fact that Shuster’s former chief-of-staff turned transportation industry lobbyist continued to work for him has his chief fundraiser. And apparently none of this bothered liberals either, as long as funds were earmarked for their pet projects. Many years Shuster didn’t even have an opponent in the general election (he was endorsed by both parties).

Such power games advance under the cover of economic development. In Tennessee, lawmakers justified politically-driven highway spending as an investment in the economy, even as they exempted projects using federal matching funds from the state’s economic impact disclosure law. In 1999, when many Tennessee lawmakers said budget needs couldn’t be met without additional revenues, the state’s transportation budget grew by 11%. Concurrently, the Tennessee Road Builders Association endorsed a new state income tax.

Crony capitalists are addicted to using public revenues for private gain. This habit won’t change without citizen intervention. We start by holding leaders accountable to their pledge to end all earmarks. No exceptions.

Cross-posted at FireDogLake.com and Dagblog.com.