At $286.4 billion, the highway bill just passed by Congress is the most expensive public works legislation in US history. In addition to funding the interstate highway system and other federal transportation programs, it sets a new record for pork-barrel spending, earmarking $24 billion for a staggering 6,376 pet projects, spread among virtually every congressional district in the land. The enormous bill -- 1,752 pages long -- wasn't made available for public inspection until just before it was brought to a vote, and so, as The New York Times noted, ''it is safe to bet that none of the lawmakers, not even the main authors, had read the entire package."
That didn't stop them from voting for it all but unanimously -- 412 to 8 in the House, 91 to 4 in the Senate.Democrats voted overwhelmingly for the bill, too, of course, but Republicans have continuously presented themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility. They have once again proven the absurdity of that posture.
It is especially revealing and contemptible that the bill's authors did not make it public until the vote was about to take place. No need to hear from the taxpayers before deciding how to spend our money. Perhaps there would have been less support for "highway" projects meant to benefit no one but the constituencies of particular legislators, such as the following:
Meander through the bill's endless line items and you find a remarkable variety of ''highway" projects, many of which have nothing to do with highways: Horse riding facilities in Virginia ($600,000). A snowmobile trail in Vermont ($5.9 million). Parking for New York's Harlem Hospital ($8 million). A bicycle and pedestrian trail in Tennessee ($532,000). A daycare center and adjoining park-and-ride facility in Illinois ($1.25 million). Dust control mitigation for rural Arkansas ($3 million). The National Packard Museum in Ohio ($2.75 million). A historical trolley project in Washington ($200,000). And on and on and on.
John McCain (R-AZ) was one of the few who voted against the bill, as Jacoby notes:
Arizona Senator John McCain, one of the four who voted no, called the bill a ''monstrosity" and wondered whether it will ever be possible to restore fiscal sanity to Congress. If ''the combination of war, record deficits, and the largest public debt in the country's history" can't break lawmakers' addiction to overspending, he asked, what can? ''It would seem that this Congress can weather any storm thrown at it, as long as we have our pork life-saver to cling to."
McCain is a Republican, and it might surprise younger readers to learn that spending discipline was once a basic Republican principle. Hard to believe in this era of bloated Republican budgets and the biggest-spending presidential administration in 40 years -- but true. Once upon a time Republicans actually described themselves with pride as fiscal conservatives. That was one of the reasons they opposed the promiscuous use of pork-barrel earmarks, which are typically used to bypass legislative standards, reward political favorites, and assert congressional control over state and local affairs.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lord Acton said. And those whose power is not absolute, I would add, will find ways to augment it. Fiscally, the Republicans have just pushed us farther down the highway to hell, once again.