What's $286 Billion Among Friends?:
The Washington Post has a very good analysis of the politics of the new transportation bill:
  Three years ago, President Bush went to war against congressional pork. His official 2003 budget even featured a color photo of a wind-powered ice sled — an example of the pet projects and alleged boondoggles he said he would no longer tolerate.
  Yesterday, Bush effectively signed a cease-fire — critics called it more like a surrender — in his war on pork. He signed into law a $286 billion transportation measure that contains a record 6,371 pet projects inserted by members of Congress from both parties.
  Six thousand, three hundred, and seventy one pet projects. Wow. My favorite part is the defense of the bill offered by White House spokesman Trent Duffy. In response to criticisms from conservative groups that the bill cost too much,
  Duffy replied that Bush pressured Congress to shave billions of dollars off the bill, and he said spending is "pretty modest" when spread out over five years. The transportation bill, at $57 billion a year, is a fraction of Medicare's $265 billion.
  Besides, Duffy said, "the president has to work with the Congress."
   I'm sure that some amount of highway spending was needed, and I don't know enough about the topic to know what the "right" amount of spending was. It's easy to complain about pork in the abstract. Still, when $286 billion dollars in new spending is described as "pretty modest" because if you spread out the costs over five years the annual costs are less than Medicare, it's hard not to wonder what is going on.
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Oh, is this that "grand theft auto" Senator Clinton was upset about?
8.11.2005 3:18am
What's going on is business as usual in Washington. At least the Democrats never pretended to be opposed to increased federal government spending. Since neither party is serious about fiscal discipline, and never will be, the only plausible option for dealing with this problem is a divided government. There at least the fear that the other party will claim credit for some spending project seems to have at least a marginal restraining effect.
8.11.2005 5:14am
Guest (mail):
I agree with Cornellian. This is just a larger version of the mayor buying yachts &strippers for his buddies.
8.11.2005 8:49am
AppSocRes (mail):
An extremely important quibble to which no-one -- particularly the media, which ideally are supposed to inform the public -- ever seems to pay any attention: The moneys in this bill, which are being bruited about so avidly, are authorizations not appropriations. As such, they are essentially only upper bounds on the moneys that the legislature will actually appropriate. Appropriations for these projects will almost inevitably be only a fraction of the authorizations.

As an example, after the recent death of a popular ex-Senator, a bill authorized tens of millions of dollars for some memorial project or other. Ultimately, no money was appropriated and the ex-senator wound up with only a family-financed tombstone to commemorate his passing.

The money that the Treasury will actually disburse for these transportation projects is limited by appropriations, not authorizations. This is why the chairs of Appropriations Committees are often referred to as "Cardinals": It is these legislators who really determine how much money is spent on what.

There is a frightfully widespread ignorance of the legislative process in this country. It is only compounded by media coverage which ignores this critical distinction: Whether through ignorance, sloth, or special pleading, I am not sure.
8.11.2005 9:43am
I'm not defending the bill, but I have a question about the number of projects. How many of the 6371 are highway projects (roads, bridges, etc.) and could be, arguably, defended, and how many are things added to the bill as riders that have little or nothing to do with our roads? I.e. is 6371 a media-sensationalized number, or is there some generic highway money in this bill and the majority "yachts &strippers" for their buddies?
8.11.2005 9:48am

Thanks a lot for the post... informative yet brief
8.11.2005 10:22am
This report may shed some more light on what AppSocRes describes.

(I admit having to go and look it up myself.)
8.11.2005 10:40am
Jason L. Snowden (mail) (www):
The reason they are talking about this as "modest" is because two years ago Congress agreed on this very bill at a hefty $400 billion, and Bush said he wouldn't pass it until it was down to $250 billion. After two years of negotiations he finally relented at the current level

I personally am happy about it, because I live in Ohio and go to Myrtle Beach often, and there's lots of money appropriated for the I-73 corridor going from the Ohio/WVa border directly to Myrtle Beach. ;)
8.11.2005 11:06am
I thought that the several million authorized to enhance the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California was particulary ironic.
8.11.2005 11:21am
Joel B. (mail):
I don't really agree with the general negative perspective of the highway bill. Yes it's pork, but it's the most relevant kind of pork, and it's a part of life. Quite frankly, the one thing we don't "throw" enough money at is roads and transportation. We throw money at all sorts of problems money can't solve, and the one that money actually can solve we condemn as pork.

Look, part of this too, is that, I think, there are is a tendancy of the constituencies that didn't get much highway pork to be more dismayed by their bill. (I am one such constiuent). That's what you get though for having ineffective, or singular party representation thanks BB and DF. But should I really be dismayed that other congresspeople are more effective? No, if Californian's aren't going to vote for Senators who will be useful in the pork game, and instead defend to the last the principle that abortion should be legal up to the time of birth, we can't complain when we don't get much back.
8.11.2005 11:43am

I am intrigued by your theory that the redistribution of wealth by using taxes to build bridges we don't need is a good thing. But wouldn't it be more efficient just to apply special taxes to urban residents and use those funds to provide cash handouts to rural residents? At least that way we wouldn't waste time trucking concrete into the wilderness.
8.11.2005 12:15pm
Hey Joel B.

I'd love to hear how the following pet projects are a relevant and necessary part of life:

-$100,000 for a single traffic light in California
-$230 million for a bridge to Gravina Island, Alaska, Population: 50, and they already have a ferry service
-$1 million for landscaping at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills. Apparently one of the most distinguished hospitals in the world needs Congressional support.

There are many many other examples of similar frivolity throughout this bill. These are not critical, life-saving projects of national priority. They are gift baskets for connected constituents. The distribution of transportation funds is not based on what will provide the most utility for Americans, but on who best played the political game. That's why some states act as donor states and some are recipient states in terms of what they can back from gas tax revenue - the members of Congress who can win the most pork for their states or districts force the citizens of other states or districts to subsidize the porkers' constituents
The problem is that the federal government, totally disconnected from the real needs of people in the states, is involved with local transportaton funding in the first place. States should be allowed to opt out of the federal gas tax, to stop the pork and create more equitable funding.
8.11.2005 12:18pm
Jeff Bergman (mail) (www):
Joel B.:

You raise a decent point about this kind of spending being, to a great extent, necessary and inevitable, but I think you need to consider a couple more things before embracing the "most relevant kind of pork." First of all, while roads are undoubtedly a major public good, does it make sense to continue routing authority for them through Congress? Any nationwide need for highway infrastructure was satisfied long ago, and I honestly don't see much reason to keep addressing these local projects at the federal level.

Secondly, shouldn't it raise eyebrows when someone like Rep. Young of Alaska gets to authorize funds for a bridge and then name it after himself? Transportation spending by district correlates pretty closely with Congressional seniority, and very little with assessed need. Roads may be a public good, but at some point the system funding them starts to look more and more like plain old patronage and cost-shifting.
8.11.2005 12:29pm
Mark S.:
Only in politics would someone justify their work on item A by comparing it to their shabby job on item B and expect accolades for it.

Makes me sick.
8.11.2005 12:33pm
boonelsj (mail):

Some random information: Gravina Island is where the airport for the much larger city of Ketchikan is located (large for Alaska, anyway), on the other side of the Tongass narrows. I didn't know anyone actually lived over there. That said, it is already served by ferry service, and, while annoying, I don't understand why that's not adequate. Also I believe I read that the narrows are ridiculously deep, so building a bridge will be quite difficult.
8.11.2005 12:38pm
I'm with Medis. Quit pretending the pork is actually something useful and just give the recipients a check. Same goes for farming subsidies; quit hiding behind silly arguments and make the welfare explicit. Of course we all know why that won't happen, especially with a Republican congress.

Another aspect of this that many people miss is that bills like this are anti-federalist. The threat of witholding federal highway funds is used as a whip to force states to pass laws that congress doesn't have the power to pass directly. This aspect should alarm originalists perhaps more than the outright waste.

I recommend everyone invest their tax savings now, because you're going to need the interest to pay the increased taxes we're all going to see down the road to pay off the massive debt shift to the future made these last 5 years.
8.11.2005 12:40pm
Mark S.:
Tom Delay was recently bemoaning why Texas only receives $0.92 of every $1 it sends to Washington. My question: Why the hell are we sending money to Washington and then fighting to get it back?

If I were a gangster, this is definetly how I would do business. Take everyone's money, skim the float while the money sits in my account, take my share of the principal, and then distribute the balance back to my goons at the end of the month/quarter/year.

Sucks for the goons, but it's great for me.
8.11.2005 12:48pm
Joel B. (mail):
First, the things you list Crash, are hard to assess without some type of cost and benefit of the situation. As boonelsj points out the bridge does have a purpose, to serve an airport to a relatively well-sized city (for Alaska). Sure, it's waste to all of us, but to the people of Ketchikan it may be something they've been clamoring away for at Rep. Young for a long time, and he's just serving them well.

Traffic Lights also, don't come cheap, and I can think of many places either along, US 50 or California 58 or a number of other routes where a well placed or better timed stoplight would make a world of difference for a lot of commuters and, travellers.

Jeff, you raise some good points too, and let me readily admit, this is not the ideal world. In fact, it's operated in a hapharzard and frusterating way at times. Should highway spending be routed through Congress? Probably not, but then again, if that were the case no money would get spent on roads in California. (Thanks to a number of years of shifting of Prop. 42 funds).

To those who think states are better equipped to hand out money,- States, are hardly better at recognizing their constituents needs. As I can attest the State of California, is absolutely dreadful when it comes to transportation spending. Worse, often when it happens, it benefits So Cal, and not much in Nor Cal, although a number of the worst traffic infrastructure issues are in Nor Cal.

Lastly, It doesn't surprise me that some would rather have concrete trucked out than a check. It's easy for the urbanites (like myself) to think how quaint it is for rural people to want access to roads. But that's because we don't think twice about it. Does it cost a lot more to wire rural than urban areas...isn't the same true for roads? Just because we don't want to pay for other people's benefits doesn't mean we haven't long benefitted from other peoples taxes either. As we discuss about this all in 10 miles radius of probably a 6 lane freeway.

Nothing is more obnoxious than someone else's pork, but nothing is more important, than our vital project.
8.11.2005 1:02pm
Steve R:
Crash - 100,000 for a traffic light? Depends on where it is. Possible causes of such costs: Traffic studies so the light will improve traffic flow not damage it; bringing power to the intersection for the lights; the equipment itself. Now funding of this light by the federal gov't, that might just be questionable, again, it depends where it is.

Also, don't give us in Calif. a hard time, we are one of those donor states you are referring to, we consistently receive the statutory minimum return of our payouts.

Jeff Bergman: all that infrastructure is designed and built to last up to 20 years - we have roadways out here in Los Angeles (US Highways like US-101 and I-5) that are still being used with their original pavement from before 1960 at traffic levels never anticipated by their designers. Once you build something you must provide consistent maintenance if it is not to deteriorate. Local entities (even big ones like Los Angeles) simply do not retain sufficient of the tax revenue generated there to provide this maintenance, and some simply do not have enough money.
8.11.2005 1:29pm
MJ (mail):
AppSocRes is absolutely right in pointing out the critical distinction between an authorization and an appropriation. For example, congress has authorized 2.5 billion in aid to the Millennium Challenge Account (for aids in Africa), yet congress has authorized the spending of about only $600 million (I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing, just offering it as an example of a difference between an authorization and an appropriation).

As a Republican, I am generally disappointed by this administration and the last several Republican congress' spending. But it seems to me unfair to take a $286 billion Bill that has been whittled down from the proposed $400 billion version, where not a dime of it has yet been appropriated, and castigate either the congress or this administration - yet.
8.11.2005 1:33pm
Steve R:
Joel, well said.

Though down here is So.Cal. we notice how we can't get money for our highway needs because of all the money being spent in No.Cal. Just goes to show the truth of your close.

Nothing is more obnoxious than someone else's pork, but nothing is more important, than our vital project.
8.11.2005 1:33pm

Even the President is touting this as a jobs-creating bill (read: wealth transfer). No one is pretending that all these projects passed C-B analysis, nor that anyone even tried to rank them in such a fashion. As others have noted, and as you even acknowledged, the pattern of the money being doled out reflects political power, not ratio of benefits to costs.

Seriously, it would eliminate a lot of waste if we just took money from people in some states and handed it to people in other states (and let them buy roads with it if they want, or not). I realize this is politically impossible, but should we really pretend that this has anything to do with a sensible transportation policy?
8.11.2005 1:58pm
Didn't Get the Memo (mail):
Interesting. So this is the new Dem talking point designed to try to stir up conservatives?

Pretty lame. Didn't work in '04, wont work in '06. But knock yourself out with it.
8.11.2005 2:04pm
Joel B. (mail):
I don't know that I equate jobs-creating bill with a wealth transfer. In fact, transportation spending is one of those few areas that actually do help create jobs, not only in the transportation industry but all over. Easier movement of people and goods makes it more likely that there will be greater movement of people and goods. (Jobs and Sales).

Everyone wants roads, but no one wants to bear the brunt of the cost of building a road. So ultimately, it gets dealt with on the political level. That's normal though.

It would eliminate a lot of "waste" if we did a lot of things differently. Waste however is not the worst thing in the world. Some waste, is a byproduct of having important systems. A benevolent philosopher king may be the best system of government resulting in the least total waste, and as a result, there is some "waste" in having a Republic. But it's a price I'm willing to pay. Are you?

Which brings up another you really think a government transportation bureaucracy would be better at doling out transportation projects? Politics is a world, where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Which, perhaps is just a reminder to be squeaky.
8.11.2005 2:35pm
Isaac (www):
Joel B. asked

do you really think a government transportation bureaucracy would be better at doling out transportation projects?

If I'm not mistaken, you're talking about an entity whose job it is to answer the following question: "If Congress allocates $X to us this year to spend on transportation, what's the best way, for the good of the country, to spend that money?" If so, then yes, I think that beats having money earmarked by a body that doesn't even ask the question in the first place.
8.11.2005 2:42pm
So Joel, is there never too much waste in your view? I understand there will inevitably be some wasteful transfers of wealth paired with any justifiable government spending, and I agree with the sentiment that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. But does that mean we should simply accept any level of waste whatsoever as the price we pay for democracy? Are you saying it is inappropriate to cite this level of waste in an argument for using democratic means to help curtail it (such as the suggestion that we should vote to create divided governments)?

And again, regardless of what, if anything, we can do to stop this level of government waste, I see no reason to delude ourselves about what is going on.
8.11.2005 2:48pm
trotsky (mail):
My Republican NorCal congressman isn't much of an earmarker, but the one specific project my area received under the bill was a few million dollars to advance a much needed interchange on a federal highway in a rapidly growing area where there are an increasing number of traffic accidents. Could be much, much worse uses for the money.

Also, it's worth noting that the earmarks are still a relatively small share of the total funding, which is spent in each state according to some formula.
8.11.2005 3:08pm
Joel B. (mail):
There are absolutely cases where there is too much waste, and it is good to complain about it. I guess I just don't see this so much as people complaining about government waste, as much as government pork. Pork is not necessarily waste. Often enough, pork, is just doing a congressperson's job, getting federal dollars back to the district for projects that are important to that district. I do think there's a tendancy to see waste in it, because the project isn't in yours or my district, but it's not "waste," it's the system working.

If Congress allocates $X to us this year to spend on transportation, what's the best way, for the good of the country, to spend that money?" If so, then yes, I think that beats having money earmarked by a body that doesn't even ask the question in the first place.

Fair enough, it's reasonable to come out on either side, I think we just disagree. However, I think bureaucracies tend to be subject to similar political pressures, it's just different, or worse more concentrated into say the hands of a few bureaucrats, who, no doubt, answer to someone, as opposed to diffused through 535 MoCs.
8.11.2005 3:56pm
Perseus (mail):
Jason L. Snowden writes:

The reason they are talking about this as 'modest' is because two years ago Congress agreed on this very bill at a hefty $400 billion, and Bush said he wouldn't pass it until it was down to $250 billion. After two years of negotiations he finally relented at the current level [of $286 billion].

By Washington accounting standards, that's a massive 30 percent "cut" in spending!
8.11.2005 4:44pm
Splunge (mail):
Beautifully argued, Joel B., and right on the money in every respect.
8.11.2005 4:57pm
But Joel, how do you know the game is getting federal dollars back to your district "for projects that are important to that district," as opposed to just getting federal dollars back to your district whether or not the project is important?

And the reason why this question is particularly relevant for "pork" is that no one is bothering to determine whether or not the projects in question are in fact important enough to justify the expense. Indeed, the specific problem is that once the "Open for Business" sign is hung on the door of a particular bill, everyone knows they have to get SOMETHING earmarked for their district, wisely spent or not, because otherwise they pay taxes in and get nothing back.

So what we get is an ever-increasing pie with ever-increasing slices completely divorced from any determination that the money is being well-spent.

And that is the real alternative, of course: we don't have to take the same $286 billion and have the government spend it some other way. We can just leave off the pork and not have the government spend the money at all.
8.11.2005 6:03pm
devil's advocate (mail):
some facts before we all beat our chests bloody about how much we hate "pork"

the 6000 projects total a small percentage of the bill (i think about $10 billion). minus the mega-projects (of which there are like 15) and i think the amount of "pork" is like $8 billion. you will not find any boats or strippers for congressman in the bill. obviously.

yes, don young is wasting $280 million. and there are lot of tree-planting and trails and museums for a couple billion. but the vast majority of the earmarks are for major highways and roads in communities that want them upgrade, rebuilt, or built.

the $280 billion is not "new spending". (also it is not authorization vs appropriations, it is direct spending from the gas tax to the highway trust fund, no appropriations needed, it goes straight to the state DOTs).

no one complained when congress extended the federal highway program 11 times between when the last highway bill expired. if congress hadnt, construction all across the country on highways and roads would have halted, contracts, broken, mass chaos. those extentions continued federal transportation spending at previous levels (about $40-45 billion/year). we are now bumping up the annual funding amount, but the population has increased by many millions since 1998, when the last highway bill was passed.

this old "fleexing of america" storyline is so beat. again, yes many people are wasting millions of dollars, totalling a few billion out of $280 billion. ho hum. ever looked at the DOD budget? they spend $500 BILLION, ie 1/2 trillion EVERY YEAR. and the vast majority of that stuff is not everyday stuff for the troops. don't think there is any pork in there? remember the $600 toilet seat? but in the GWOT, cant criticize congress and DOD for defense pork, you america-hating terrorist-sympathizer.

targeted tax-breaks and other special interest cave-ins are much more egregious than a few federal funded projects that are stupid (alaska just has a lot of seniority, you cant do anything about it unfortunately). you can usually fleece america much better if you are indirect about it, squash a competitor, get a sweetheart deal, eliminate a regulation, than by getting a direct check from uncle sam like these damn bridges.

most people dont even have a definition of "pork" that's anything except something you wouldnt spend money on. the heritage foundation has one, but it is ridiculous. it involves meeting 2 of 7 arcane criteria, including whether congressional hearings have been held on something. do we need a hearing on every road and highway in america that is going to get federal money? how much time and money would all the hearings waste?

again, not defending don young (R-AK) or Bill Thomas (R-CA) who is building a $600 milllion earmarked loop around bakersfield CA, population 300K, which LA to the south gets much less earmarked money. they are not allocating resources the right way. they are wrong. however, CA as a state will get billions that it can allocate its own way through the DOT and much of that will be to meet demand, where the growth and deterioration require "new" spending.

america will never ever stop building roads and highways (why arent we more proud of them like the romans were of theirs) until we each have our own jet packs. so might as well sit back and get used to it.
8.11.2005 6:38pm