In a process familiar to any troubled sub prime borrower, the current federal highway reauthorization bill spends more money than it takes in. Historically, any excess spending is paid through the Federal Highway Trust Fund and has always been exclusively funded through the gas tax. However, in an unprecedented action, the House overwhelmingly passed HR 6532, a bill that would transfer over $8 billion in general revenue to the highway trust fund, adding directly to the federal deficit. The Senate is set to take up the proposal as part of a larger bill containing various tax extenders set for a cloture vote this week.

The reason for the House vote was that the Federal Highway Trust fund is set to go completely broke sometime in FY2009 as a direct result of spending on wasteful pork projects such as the now infamous “bridge to nowhere” earmark. However, increased deficit spending was not the only option available to Congress.

Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) recently proposed, that rather than finance the trust fund with additional deficit spending, Congress should pay for the shortfall by shifting unspent pork funding to the trust fund. According to a recent review of program spending patterns done for Congressman Flake by the U.S. Department of Transportation, an estimated $11 billion in low priority and earmarked spending remains unobligated and could be redeployed to ensure trust fund solvency. The House quickly rejected this plan.

This inexcusable vote in favor of pork sadly represents the current reality facing those in favor of fiscal responsibility. 387 members of Congress, including both Republican and Democratic leadership, voted for deficit spending over the cutting of even a portion of their pork. A quick review of some the pork Congressman Flake proposed to shift funds from reveals several suspect projects:

  • $2,750,000 to renovate and expand the National Packard Museum in Ohio, a tribute to an out of business car company who hasn’t actually produced a car since the mid-fifties.
  • $15,000,000 to purchase three ferries in New York City.
  • $400,000 to improve sidewalks, upgrade lighting, and add landscaping in downtown Glennville, Georgia.
  • $1,680,000 to develop pedestrian and bike connections that link to Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • $200,000 to develop trails, bike paths and recreational facilities for Cumberland Trail State Park, Tennessee. 
  • $960,000 to implement streetscape improvements on segments of Laurel Canyon Blvd. and Victory Blvd. in North Hollywood, California.
  • $2,320,000 to add landscaping enhancements along the Ronald Reagan Freeway Route 118 for aesthetic purposes in California.

In some cases the federal government has given so much money to programs such as the Rack-Em Up! Bike Rack & Locker Subsidy Program that the intended recipients have trouble spending it all. This vote reflects the broad and bi-partisan decline of fiscal responsibility in Congress. With the next highway reauthorization right around the corner in 2009 true fiscal conservatives must take note. Without stronger conservative leadership, the next highway bill will be even worse.