PRESIDENT REAGAN vetoed the highway bill on the grounds that it is ``pork barrel'' legislation. It is. There is a ``goodie'' in the form of a bridge, a viaduct, a new piece of highway, or a rebuilding of an old one, for every state in the Union. That is what a pork barrel is - a grant by Congress of something desirable to enough states to produce a majority of votes in the Congress.
But look who is talking.
On the same day that the President was vetoing the highway bill the Pentagon was blanketing Capitol Hill with a report showing that 44 states would get subcontracts for the two new aircraft carriers which outgoing Secretary of the Navy John Lehman wants Congress to authorize and fund this year.
One of those carriers would be routine, and could be justified if the United States is to keep up its existing strength of 13 carrier task forces. The second is necessary only if Congress is prepared to buy the Lehman program calling for 15 carrier task forces.
The idea of going from 13 to 15 is controversial because many believe the big carrier itself is an obsolete weapon of war, it is highly visible and vulnerable, it is questionable whether Congress will provide the funds necessary to maintain a 15-carrier fleet, and whether the public will provide enough manpower for 15 carriers indefinitely.
Further, the strategic rationale for the 15 carrier force is the idea that, in the event of war with the Soviets, this force would take the offensive into the Arctic and even the Barents Sea, where it would encounter the greatest possible concentration of Soviet attack submarines and land-based Soviet bombers flying under fighter escort.
Many experts think that this idea is military nonsense.
The case for laying down two more carriers this coming year is being made in Congress not, however, on military grounds but on the assertion that there will be contracts pouring out from the shipyards at Norfolk, in Virginia, to 43 other states.
Six states failed to get on the list. One can understand there being little for an aircraft carrier to be found in Alaska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. But one might think that with a little ingenuity they could have found something to buy in Arkansas. According to the World Almanac it produces electric motors and generators. But there are plenty of votes in Congress from the 44 non-neglected states.
The second carrier, in other words, is just as much pork as the bridges and viaducts in the vetoed highway bill.
President Reagan calls the highway bill ``budget busting.'' His military program is just as much ``budget busting.'' They are similar in many ways. Both provide juicy contracts for allegedly depressed industries - the carriers for the shipbuilders and arms and aircraft makers, the highway funds for the highway contractors. Both will provide employment where otherwise there would be less employment.
The vetoed version of the highway bill proposed a five-year program at $87.5 billion. Mr. Reagan was willing to accept a bill at $82 billion. Hence his objection is to the extra $5.5 billion or $1.1 billion per year. A carrier plus its quota of aircraft and its escorts of cruiser and destroyers costs somewhere between $10 and $12 billion to mount and make ready for sea. The operation of a carrier task force for one year is a variable, but not far from $1.1 billion.
Mr. Reagan's tax cuts are currently costing the US some $70 billion per year in reduced federal revenue. Restoring the tax cuts would not be enough to balance the federal budget even without either the extra carrier or the extra funds for bridges. But neither carrier nor highways would be quite so extravagant had there been no tax cuts.
Both are extravagances of dubious justification, particularly in times of deficits. But of the two extravagances the extra carrier, which much of the Navy does not want anyway, is probably the greater. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones at other people's boondoggles.