Fiscal conservatives beg to differ
President Bush's speech on Thursday night pledged a virtual blank check to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and it would be hard to deny that reflects in part an effort to recover lost credibility after his initial hesitant response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. What is most troubling is the hasty loosening of the purse strings, an invitation to abuse Federal funds by bogus pork barrel schemes. (I complained about the energy bill as a pork-laden monstrosity on July 28, and stand by that assessment.) We urgently need to pause and think about this before letting our collective sentiments (and political calculations) seriously distort our nation's economic policy. Bush's refusal to consider raising taxes to pay for the rebuilding effort simply highlights the fiscal bind his administration has put us in. Even before the Bush speech, David Broder complained bitterly of the mounting deficits -- which are headed toward half a trillion dollars annually! -- in the September 11 Washington Post:
The question is whether this will force the president and congressional Republicans to suspend their obsessive drive to reduce the revenue base of the federal government, or whether they will finally start paying the bills their government is incurring.
The warning signs of impending economic calamity are every bit as evident as the forecasts of ruin for New Orleans when a major hurricane hit.
Broder may be overstating the risk, but I would not rule out a major correction in the nation's financial markets like the one that struck in the midst of the Savings and Loan crisis of October 1987. One of the main reasons for fiscal prudence is precisely to set aside a reserve surplus for use in case of national emergency. Supply-siders' optimistic pro-growth rhetoric rings hollow when major disasters strike.
Porkbusters? "Not in my back yard!"
Thankfully, many Americans have "connected the dots" between our nation's emergency preparedness and its fiscal situation. Citizens in Bozeman, Montana have requested that Federal money for an unnecessary local highway project be returned to the U.S. Treasury. Inspired by this example of public spiritedness, The Truth Laid Bear blog, in cooperation with Instapundit, has launched a new campaign dear to the hearts of true fiscal conservatives everywhere: "Porkbusters." (logo by Stacy Tabb) Contact your local congressperson and tell him or her to "just say no" to wasteful pork barrel spending. It would help especially if you could identify any bogus projects you know about.
When it comes to sacrificing for the greater public good, folks tend to expect those in other states to go first, which is why it's so hard to control spending. In terms of pork, the transportation bill was at least as bad as the energy bill. Generally speaking, some Federal funding is appropriate when long-distance (interstate) transportation is involved, but local projects should be funded entirely by state and local governments. What about Virginia? I've met two Republican congressmen from Virginia, Bob Goodlatte (6th District) and Virgil Goode (5th District; a Democrat until 1997 or so), and both are decent, thrifty, sincere fiscal conservatives. In an age when most congressmen indulge in lavish travel and staff expenses, Rep. Goode ranked as one of the most frugal on Capitol Hill, according to a Washington Post survey a couple years ago. If you look across the landscape of rural Virginia, it's hard to find wasteful pork barrel spending by the Federal government. Across the state line in West Virginia, meanwhile, there are dozens of brand new bridges and multilane highways through the once-pristine wilderness, thanks to the undisputed world champion of Federal pork, Sen. Robert Byrd (D). All those new roads provide much easier access for out-of-state rafting and rock-climbing enthusiasts, ruthlessly paving over Mother Nature in the process. West Virginia will receive more than $2 billion in Federal highway funds over the next five years, more than double Virginia's share of the "loot." (See Sen. Warner's Web site.) Here are some of the main projects funded by the recent transportation bill in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, along with my evaluation of them in parentheses:
- $141.5 million for Interstate 81 improvements (definitely needed, but plans are sharply disputed)
- $27 million for the Meadowcreek Parkway in Charlottesville (probably needed, but purely for local traffic)
- $5 million to Widen Route 262 in Augusta County (still under construction; a needed bypass for truck traffic)
- $1.2 million for the Downtown Staunton Streetscape project (nice but utterly unjustified; to attract more upscale antique shoppers)
- More than $100 million to improve intermodal facilities and tunnels in the "Heartland Corridor" (?)
- $18.64 million for various projects in Richmond (?)
By far the costliest of these projects is I-81, and there is no reason it can't be scaled back and/or deferred at least a year or two. I think one of the most extravagant highway projects in Virginia is the new Route 460 highway bypasses in the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area, along with the pilot "Smart Highway" project that includes a huge bridge built a few years ago that will not be open to the public any time in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that money has already been spent, so it's too late to ask Rep. Rick Boucher (D - 9th District) to give back those funds. The upshot is, residents of the Shenandoah Valley don't have much "pork" to give back, but that frivolous $1.2 million to spruce up downtown Staunton would be a good place to start.