Taking the trust funds 'off budget'

April 25, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In 1919 the Army ordered a young officer to take a convoy from Camp Meade in Maryland to the Presidio in San Francisco to assess the military utility of Army vehicles and America's highways. Dwight Eisenhower's convoy averaged five miles per hour, and 35 years later he proposed funding one of the largest and most productive public-works projects in American history, the Interstate Highway System.

This was the flowering of an idea advanced by General Motors' futuristic exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Long Island, and advocated in 1944 as an antidote to the anticipated postwar depression. Also, Eisenhower had been impressed by the autobahns Hitler had built.

However, Eisenhower's championing of more than 40,000 miles of new highways reflected thinking with a long, strong Republican pedigree -- indeed, one that predated the emergence of the Republican Party from, among other groups, remnants of Henry Clay's Whig Party.

Which is one reason why conscientious Republican senators can and should support the bill that last week the House passed 284-143 (162 Republicans in favor, 72 opposed). This in spite of opposition from such thoughtful conservatives as Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Granted, many of the bill's supporters are citing high principles in the service of low motives. But although many are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, they are right to favor removing the four transportation trust funds (highway, airport and airway, inland waterways, harbor maintenance) from the budget.

Each is funded by user fees, mostly fuel taxes. These are dedicated funds, meaning that they can only be spent for each fund's particular infrastructure purposes. But if not fully spent, their surpluses, which now are a cumulative $31 billion and rising, count as a federal asset, reducing the deficit number by that amount.

Taking the trust funds ''off budget'' would increase the deficit by that amount as quickly as the funds could be spent. That might be quite quick, because transportation projects are favorite forms of pork, particularly for contractors and construction unions who express gratitude with campaign contributions. And because the funds, if left ''on budget,'' would have growing surpluses to help mask the deficit, the Office of Management and Budget estimates that removing them from the budget will require $50 billion of additional cuts to balance the budget by 2002.

Which is one reason for removing them. Another is that money dedicated to one purpose (transportation) should not be hoarded for another purpose (to make balancing the budget easier). Those who say the Social Security surplus also masks the deficit invite this response: Right, so cut Social Security taxes. Will spending the trust funds unleash the never more than lightly leashed temptation to buy pork? Certainly, which is why the president should be held accountable for the use he makes, or does not make, of the line-item veto.

If the nation does not need to spend as much more on transportation as the user fees generate, cut the fees. But the needs are alarming, as the condition of highways and airports demonstrates. The $31 billion would not cover four years of appropriate spending on airports, or one-tenth of proper road and bridge work. And no Republican in the Clay-Lincoln-Eisenhower tradition questions the national role in addressing such needs.

Internal improvements

In 1807 young Senator Clay, having come from Kentucky to Washington over corduroy roads (formed by split tree-trunks and logs) and other hazards, quickly found himself in opposition to President Jefferson, who thought the Constitution did not empower the federal government to fund ''internal improvements'' such as the toll bridge Clay thought Congress should build across the Potomac. Such improvements were central to what became Clay's ''American System.''

It envisioned federal measures nurturing economic dynamism, not just to produce prosperity but to foster harmony among the nation's regions. All of them would have a stake in national vitality conducive to what Clay called the ''moral and intellectual improvement of the people.''

Which is why the lanky young grocery clerk interested in making the Sangamon River more navigable near New Salem, Illinois, was a Clay man 30 years before becoming the first Republican president and an advocate of the transcontinental railroad.

In today's context, it is offensive to Republicanism, properly understood, that funds dedicated to clear and urgent national purposes are being hoarded to make it easier for the federal government to continue subsidizing Amtrak, ethanol and public television.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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