Seduction by pork

August 09, 2005

GAS PRICES a pain? No worries. A soothing new bridge, wider road or bike trail - plus a tax write-off to buy a hybrid car - is headed your way courtesy of Congress. Depressed or worse about the Iraq war? A boost to the local economy from federal subsides for corn or coal might help, Congress hopes.

However disappointed taxpayers may be in the general trend of things in Washington, Congress is betting they will at least find something appealing on the list of nearly 6,500 pet projects and $14.6 billion in tax breaks that lawmakers are back home boasting of to their constituents.

It's a wildly irresponsible practice. Like repeatedly giving candy to a child to shut him up. But it works so well to shield individual lawmakers from anger at Congress in general that Republicans who once preached tight-fistedness have embraced it with a zeal that more than matches the record of free-spending Democrats.

Voters shouldn't sell out so cheaply, especially when the money involved is theirs.

Some of the individual spending projects might be worthwhile. But tacking them on to the massive transportation and energy bills enacted last month ensures that the spending items aren't evaluated on their merits but according to the political clout of their sponsors.

For example, Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, was able to deliver the equivalent of $1,128 per person in transportation bill goodies to his Bakersfield, Calif., district, while the statewide average was about $78 per person, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Maryland's $375 million in so-called earmarks amounts to $72 for each resident. Some of that money has been designated to design and build seven hiking and biking trails in various parts of the state and a "park and float" lot to serve water taxi stops in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

We don't share the view of highway building that such projects are an inappropriate use of federal gasoline tax receipts. We rather like that feature. It's just that this back-scratching, grab-bag approach to making spending decisions is inefficient and wasteful.

Calling upon President Bush to veto the spending measures won't work. Describing the energy bill as an economic development measure, he signed it into law yesterday. He's scheduled to do the same for the transportation bill later this week.

But the coincidence of the two related measures passing at the same time - after years of delay - highlights the need for a coordinated policy of taxing energy use and directing the proceeds toward achieving broader goals of conservation and transition from fossil fuels.

In the meantime, lawmakers must be held to a higher standard than how well they can bargain - or blackmail - in the back room.

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