Self-interest rules

October 24, 2005

Some uncommonly practical suggestions emerged in Washington last week to cushion the blow of Katrina-related spending on the nation's already deeply in-debt government.

Of course, they were quickly swatted away.

Our favorite called for transferring the $223 million approved last summer to build Alaska's much-ridiculed "bridge to nowhere" and use the money instead to repair the storm-damaged twin span over Lake Pontchartrain - a major access route to New Orleans. Alaskans suggested this one.

Meanwhile, tight-fisted Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn tossed some other ideas into the mix, including slicing from the housing budget $950,000 for a museum parking lot in Omaha, $500,000 for a sculpture park in Seattle and $200,000 for a new animal shelter in Westerly, R.I., and spending that money instead on housing the vastly increased ranks of the homeless.

And then there was this seeming no-brainer from House Democrats: With Republicans struggling to meet a $50 billion target for trims from popular domestic programs, why not drop their accompanying plan to cut taxes by an additional $70 billion? Why go $20 billion deeper in the hole?

Alas, common sense does not rule in Washington. Lawmakers spend money according to their calculations of what will best enhance their chances of re-election - a highly inefficient budgeting practice at best. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens actually threatened to resign if his bridge money was tampered with.

At worst, setting priorities in this manner puts the burden of cost-cutting on the weak and voiceless in order to minimize political consequences. Top targets for House GOP budget-cutters are health care, welfare, housing and heating assistance for the poor, elderly and disabled - intended to offset, in part, tax cuts on dividends and capital gains and permanent repeal of the estate tax.

It's heartening, perhaps, that GOP leaders weren't able to muster the votes for this package last week - even in the lock-step House - and that Republican senators balked at a plan in their chamber to cut food stamps.

But Congress needn't put everyone through this agony. By simply eliminating the $24 billion worth of pork barrel add-ons to the highway bill - including Alaska's superfluous bridge - and forgoing for this year the $27 billion or so in lawmakers' pet projects quietly added annually to government spending bills, legislators could easily meet their spending-cut target and, if they drop the tax cuts, offer a more convincing case that they are serious about economizing.

And who knows? Forsaking a special interest spending spree that often robs from the poor to reward the rich just might turn out to be good politics. Surely it's good policy.

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