Railroad to nowhere

April 24, 2006

The poster boys of pork may have bitten off a little more this time than their colleagues are willing to swallow.

Mississippi Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, two former Ole Miss cheerleaders with such money muscle they need to consult no others in directing federal funds to their poor state, have inadvertently provided a powerful argument for reforming the congressional spending process.

The pair, a once and perhaps future majority leader and the Appropriations Committee chairman, took advantage of their access to a must-pass emergency measure for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina reconstruction to add $700 million for a long-sought highway and rail redesign to promote economic development along the Gulf Coast.

"We suddenly had this really great opportunity, and we're trying to seize upon it," Anthony Topazi, a Mississippi utility executive, told the Associated Press.

What's outrageous is that the senators are exploiting the tragedy of Katrina to get federal relief aid to dismantle and move a perfectly good freight rail line that CSX has just spent $300 million to repair from hurricane damage. And this at a time when much of the region still lies in ruins.

Such a goody grab should be the tipping point that finally persuades the Republican majority to heed its budget hawks and eliminate the "earmarks" that allow lawmakers to win approval for pet projects without any competitive review. Mississippi's senators led the resistance last month to a reform requiring that such items - as well as last-minute provisions to legislation never approved by either the House or Senate - be easy to identify and remove. But now they've made a great case for adopting even tougher restrictions.

The Mississippians' greedy move could also influence the House, where reformers want to ban earmarks to restore fiscal discipline.

In any event, at a time when thousands are still homeless, schools are still closed and sanitation systems still aren't properly functioning, moving a railroad to redesign a highway hardly seems like the best use of money that would add to the federal deficit. This boondoggle must be derailed.

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