April 24, 1997
In the days following the Republican sweep of the 1994 congressional elections, some exuberant conservatives began writing obituaries for a venerable Capitol Hill institution: pork barrel spending. GOP revolutionaries bent on deficit reduction and returning power to the states would have little tolerance, they said, for the age-old practice of lawmakers pledging their support for key legislation in exchange for federally funded projects in their districts.
"Bringing home the bacon does not bring home the votes. `Pork barrel' politics is probably finished," declared Wall Street Journal editorialist John Fund in a November 1994 commentary for the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Conventional wisdom said all politics is local. Not this year," agreed conservative pundit Cal Thomas in his syndicated column.
Many GOP lawmakers had similarly high expectations. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared that he and his fellow conservative firebrands were determined to put Congress on a pork-free diet. Asked if it might be tough to get Bud Shuster, R-Pa.--a world-class pork-meister who was about to become chairman of the House transportation panel--to follow the new regimen, Boehner didn't mince words. "I've got the votes to make it happen; he doesn't," he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
It's no accident that Boehner was quizzed about Shuster and his committee. Transportation spending has long been synonymous with pork barrel politics. For Members of Congress, bringing home money for local roads, bridges and rail systems has been a surefire way to show that they can deliver tangible benefits from Washington. And some postelection cynics in 1994 took the view that this tradition wasn't likely to die--GOP revolution or not.
When the Republicans in late 1994 set about renaming House committees, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call ran a whimsical chart suggesting new monikers that each party might prefer. The Ways and Means Committee, for instance, would become the "Committee on Revenues and Hard Work" under the Republicans--and the "Committee on Taxes and Welfare" if the Democrats had their druthers. Just one panel, the paper said, would have the same name under either party: the Public Works and Transportation Committee would remain the "Committee on Pork."
Two and a half years later, it looks as though the cynics were right.
Although Shuster's panel indeed got a new name--it's now the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee--its hallmark activity hasn't changed. The panel this year has grown to 73 members, which makes it the biggest congressional committee in history. And there's little mystery behind all the newfound interest in transportation policy: a mammoth six-year surface transportation bill is due for reauthorization this year. With as much as $175 billion up for grabs, practically every House Member--including many of those GOP revolutionaries--is scrambling to get a piece of the action.
Every Member "has a road or a bridge or a highway somewhere that their constituents are clamoring for, and they recognize that the easiest way to get their project in the bill is to get on the committee," noted Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a member of the Class of 1994 who sits on the transportation panel. He predicted that the reauthorization of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) "will be the biggest pork-producing bill in the 105th Congress."
AN OPENING FOR PET PROJECTS
In an era when both parties have dedicated themselves to budget balancing, the ISTEA (pronounced iced tea) reauthorization provides one of a shrinking number of opportunities for legislators to spend money the way that they could during the glory days of federal largesse. The bill is likely to authorize spending over five or six years, and is the largest nondefense discretionary spending measure on which this Congress will vote.
The bulk of federal road and transit funds, which are raised through gasoline taxes, is distributed to the states through a complex formula that is contained in the ISTEA legislation. The prospect that the formula might be revised has pitted state against state in a frenzy of lobbying and congressional acrimony. There's also plenty of debate between environmentalists, road builders and transit advocates over how the money that goes to the states should be spent.
Mostly overshadowed by this struggle over broad spending priorities and transportation policy is the less public--but no less intense--scramble by Members for individual projects. In the 1991 ISTEA bill, 538 local projects were authorized, at a cost of $6.2 billion, or about 4 per cent of the measure's $156 billion price tag.
These Member-requested programs are often called demonstration projects, a name that dates back to the time when funding requests were justified on the ground that a particular federally backed project would "demonstrate" some new construction technique.
These demonstration projects have been harshly criticized by, among other analysts, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Research Service, state transportation departments and anti-government-waste groups. By directly financing local projects, critics say, Congress end-runs the state and regional planning process--and often spends federal highway dollars on undertakings that aren't state priorities and are sometimes of dubious value.
The Clinton Administration is on record against demonstration projects; its proposal to reauthorize the surface transportation bill doesn't include any money for Member requests. Most Senators say they oppose projects, too (although the Senate managed to snag close to 100 of the 538 projects in the 1991 bill). Senators generally focus most on statewide transportation issues--namely how much money their states will receive through the highway funding formula used to distribute gas tax revenues.
There's some opposition to demonstration projects on the House side as well. The Budget Committee reports accompanying the chamber's last two budget resolutions called for doing away with such spending. "Earmarking circumvents the planning process by allocating funds on a political, not economic basis," last year's report said.
Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats alike are now lining up at the trough. After putting out a call for proposals, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee says it has received nearly 1,500 project requests from about 90 percent of House Members.
That record number of earmark requests--about 1,100 proposals were submitted in 1991--would have a price tag of somewhere between $150 billion and $300 billion, according to recent remarks by Rep. Thomas E. Petri, R-Wis. Petri, chairman of the panel's Surface Transportation Subcommittee, has emphasized that only a fraction of the requests will make the cut.
To be sure, some House GOP deficit hawks and anti-pork crusaders, including Budget Committee chairman John R. Kasich of Ohio, Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer of Texas and Boehner, who chairs the House Republican Conference, have stayed true to the party line and submitted no project requests. But the vast majority of their Republican colleagues, from rank-and-filers up to such leaders as Majority Whip Tom D. DeLay of Texas, have put in their bids for federal dollars for their districts.
Whether they're asking for $107 million for a light-rail project (Ronald C. Packard, R-Calif.), $28.8 million for a highway interchange (Jennifer B. Dunn, R-Wash.) or $18.7 million for enhancements to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Bob Ehrlich, R-Md.), these lawmakers seem to have taken to heart Shuster's oft-cited adage that there's no such thing as a Republican or a Democratic bridge or airport.
HARD HABIT TO KICK
So were would-be Republican reformers such as Boehner a little hasty when they predicted that they could out-vote old-line GOP stalwarts such as Shuster? "The facts speak for themselves," Shuster said in an April 9 interview. "There's overwhelming support for the projects."
LaHood explains it by saying that Republican revolutionaries have "sort of developed amnesia from the time they were elected.
"They're facing political reality, and the political reality is that roads provide jobs," he continued. "They're going to be in there up to their elbows along with everybody else." LaHood, a moderate who didn't sign the Contract With America, makes no apologies for the $220 million in requests he's submitted for a range of projects, including a four-lane interstate highway between his Peoria district and Chicago.
Boehner now acknowledges that his 1994 optimism was premature. "Old practices die hard," he said in an interview. "I continue to believe that this is a practice that the Congress should not engage in." Rather than requesting funding in the new transportation bill, he's pushing projects in his district through the regular state and regional planning process.
Still, Boehner maintained that Republicans have reined in some pork barrel spending. "If you look at appropriations bills, they're not nearly as full of these things as they used to be," he said. Taking a broad view, he noted, "One of the things we've learned over the last two years is that all of these reforms that we want are not going to happen overnight."
So now that it's the Republican majority's turn to shepherd through the transportation bill, will there be any scaling-back of highway and transit pork? "I'd like to be more optimistic than I am," Boehner replies.
Indeed, even some of the House GOP dissidents who recently chastised their leadership for allegedly deviating from bedrock conservative principles are lining up with project requests.
Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., was one of 11 fiscal conservatives--10 of them members of the Class of 1994--who initially blocked a committee financing resolution on the House floor in March, saying that the amount appropriated to run the panels didn't reflect GOP belt-tightening principles. Yet a month earlier, Salmon had submitted a $130 million request for a light-rail system in his district.
Shuster was displeased that Salmon bucked the leadership on the committee financing resolution, according to an Arizona Republic report, and that Salmon earlier had voted against an extension of the airline ticket tax. As a result, the Transportation Committee was likely to derail Salmon's light-rail request, the paper said.
Using local projects for political reward or retribution would certainly be nothing new. But Shuster called the paper's anonymously sourced claim "an outright lie" and maintained that he wasn't aware of how Salmon voted on the ticket tax. "We'll consider all these projects on their merits," he added.
Salmon, in an April 7 letter to Roll Call, said Shuster hadn't threatened him with retribution. He said he'd prefer that federal transportation funding be "devolved" to the states--a proposal championed by Kasich and Sen. Connie Mack III, R-Fla., and loathed by Shuster. Salmon also said, however, that he's "confident" his project will be funded if that doesn't happen.
A number of the Republicans lining up for projects appear to be followers of the pork barrel philosophy of Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
Gramm has frequently noted over the years that he'll oppose federal projects that he thinks are ill-advised. He'd vote against, say, building a cheese factory on the moon. "But if we decided to do it, I would want a Texas firm to do the engineering," he has said, and "I would want to use milk from Texas cows."
Another of the 11 GOP dissidents, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, stresses that "we're trying to change the system." He, too, supports the concept of letting states alone decide how to spend highway dollars raised through the gas tax. "But if the process that our own Republican leadership has put in place says we're going to identify projects here in Washington--we all have needs," Hoekstra said. "And just because you don't agree with the process doesn't mean you don't have needs."
Hoekstra, who has submitted a wish list that includes several highway projects for his district, denies that he's abandoned his federalist principles. "I don't think we should be deciding school lunches in Washington," he said. "Does that mean kids in my district can't get school lunches anymore?"
Other Members, such as Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, argue that their pork is leaner and healthier than what most others are requesting.
Portman--who told the Cincinnati Enquirer after the 1994 election that "there are ways to help Ohio other than bringing in projects"--has joined Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., in requesting $380 million for transportation improvements along the Interstate 71 corridor, which runs through Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. So how's Portman distinguishing himself from the pack? He's asking for a 50-50 federal-local funding split, rather than the customary 80-20 division.
THE BILL'S POLITICAL "GLUE"
For all the controversy that's surrounded demonstration projects, Shuster says critics are missing the forest for the trees. "ISTEA is not fundamentally about the projects," he insists. "ISTEA is about getting the funding necessary to ensure America's infrastructure future."
Shuster, recall, once said that his most significant accomplishment in the 102nd Congress was passage of the 1991 ISTEA bill. He has said he is proud that Pennsylvania in that legislation got $934 million in new projects, more than any other state, including $287 million for 13 projects in his district.
Shuster, who prefers to use the term "high-priority projects" to describe Members' requests, maintains that he's not paying all that much attention to the latest wish lists. "The projects are not a high priority of mine," he said. "The House can work its will on that. There's overwhelming support . . . so I'm sure it will."
Shuster says he's far more concerned about advancing longtime goals of his own--moving the federal highway trust fund off-budget and shifting a 4.3 cents-per-gallon portion of the federal fuel tax from general revenues to the trust fund. Both measures would lead to vastly increased transportation spending.
But even though projects will once again make up a relatively small slice of this year's bill--Shuster says they're unlikely to exceed 4 or 5 per cent of the total authorization--some analysts say that their political importance can't be underestimated.
"The projects are the glue that's going to hold the damn thing together," a highway lobbyist said. "You're not going to get 218 votes out of the House without them. You get people who will do what you tell them, if you promise them the projects." A former state transportation official concurred. "I've always taken the point of view that every business has some overhead," he said. "If that's what it costs to get a significant or a good highway bill, it's worth the price."
In an effort to address past criticisms, the Transportation Committee has instituted a 14-point checklist designed to vet Members' proposals. It asks whether a project has the support of state or regional transportation officials, whether it is eligible for federal matching funds (some past projects weren't), whether it has national or regional significance, and so on. "These projects have to pass muster to be considered," Shuster said.
But many state officials--who often play the game of realpolitik by holding their noses and supporting Member-backed projects--don't believe that the new checklists will do much to change the dynamic of the project allocation process.
Shuster "needs to generate fealty," said Carl B. Williams, deputy secretary for transportation in California's business, transportation and housing agency. "He has absolutely no interest in asking a state what the state wants. The only people he needs to bring to his way of thinking about passing the bill are the people who can vote on it."
California hasn't formally backed any highway or transit projects submitted by members of its congressional delegation, Williams said. "Gov. Wilson hates them, absolutely hates them," he said of the earmarks.
Many Members take pains to point out that the items on their latest wish lists also appear in state transportation plans. But even when that's true, Williams and others say, Members inevitably circumvent the state and local planning process by moving their pet projects to the front of the line. Indeed, if Members weren't wielding influence, there wouldn't be any point in getting involved in the first place, Williams said. Legislators don't score political points for delivering projects that were going to be built anyway.
Shuster observes that states already control the vast majority of highway and transit spending, and suggests they're being greedy. "They want to make all these decisions," he said. "We only have 5 percent. And we're the ones who are casting the tough votes, to raise the money and provide the funding and develop the program. And if a Member of Congress doesn't really know what's important in his district, he isn't going to be a Member of Congress very long."
As popular as demonstration projects remain, there's a major budgetary stumbling block that could make it tough for the Transportation Committee to lard this year's ISTEA reauthorization bill with earmarks. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has changed its budget rules for highway projects in a way that now treats both contract authority and outlays as mandatory spending. The 1991 ISTEA bill exempted earmarked projects from annual spending limitations. The OMB change means that under the "pay-go" rules of the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act, if the Transportation Committee wants to exempt demonstration projects once again, it must come up with offsetting cuts in other mandatory categories.
Very few Members appear to be aware of the potential OMB roadblock, a Budget Committee aide said. But the Transportation Committee leadership certainly is. In a letter to OMB director Franklin D. Raines on Feb. 24, Shuster, Petri and their Democratic counterparts, James L. Oberstar of Minnesota and Nick Joe Rahall II of West Virginia, asked that the change be reversed. OMB, they complained, "is seeking to reduce funding for highway programs through an accounting sleight-of-hand, rather than openly, through the legislative process."
Before a recent court ruling, some experts questioned whether the President could use the new line-item veto authority to strike items that he doesn't care for--including earmarked projects--from the transportation bill. But that's off the table for now. A federal judge on April 10 called the line-item veto unconstitutional, although a higher court could eventually overturn that ruling.
Whatever happens this year, the healthy appetite for pork demonstrated by many GOP lawmakers is proof that, notwithstanding the best-laid plans of reformers, the Capitol Hill tradition of bringing home the bacon isn't going away any time soon.
April 24, 1997