Politics & Policy

Highway to The Veto Zone

In accordance with hallowed Washington tradition, the Senate is now engaged in siring a new incarnation of that monument to wasteful spending, the federal highway bill. This presents President Bush with yet another opportunity to exercise his first veto. This time, he should take it.

Bush has threatened to veto any highway bill costing more than $284 billion. While the House stayed within that limit, Senate leaders have introduced proposals to tack on another $11 billion. They claim the extra spending will be paid for by cracking down on fuel-tax evasion and closing corporate-tax loopholes.

There is reason for skepticism here. Closing tax loopholes probably won’t bring much new revenue, as businesses will simply adjust their operations and portfolios to exploit loopholes that remain. And cracking down on fraud is a nice idea whose vagueness allows it to pop up every time legislators don’t know how to pay for their proposals.

“It’s been decades since

highway bills were limited to meeting

vital transportation needs.”

Of course, the problem with the bill runs deeper than the $11 billion. It’s been decades since highway bills were limited to meeting vital transportation needs. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Ronald D. Utt, the bill under consideration would direct as much as 40 percent of federal fuel-tax revenues toward projects that have little or nothing to do with highway improvements and additions. Two typical examples are a program to combat adolescent obesity, and funding for a magnetic-levitation demonstration. While the thought of svelte teenagers zipping across town, Jetson-like, on their personal levitators is not without its charm, it does seem rather removed from the purpose for which the federal highway program was created.

Come to think of it, that purpose has pretty much been fulfilled. The program began in 1956, with the goal of completing an interstate highway system–a goal met in the early 1980s, leaving legislators free to unleash their boundless creativity as they allocated trust-fund dollars.

Since the job of maintaining our highways falls to individual states, which undertake repairs and improvements within their borders, there is no obvious reason for the federal government to act as a middleman. The federal fuel tax could be gradually eliminated and replaced by corresponding increases in state gas taxes. Letting the states fund their roadwork directly would deny federal lawmakers the chance to misallocate revenues, and would eliminate the $395 million annual cost of administrating the federal bureaucracy. States could also undertake their work more efficiently if freed from federal regulations that now discourage innovative solutions such as privatization, competitive contracting, and public-private partnerships.

It may be unrealistic to expect these changes right away. But, at the very least, the president can demonstrate that unrestrained profligacy will not be tolerated. Asked recently about Bush’s veto threat, Sen. Max Baucus (D.-Mont.) said, “He’s never vetoed a bill. I doubt seriously it’ll be this one.” Those are the words of a man asking, and deserving, to be proved wrong.—The Editors

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