How to pull Congress away from pork

The good news: There's a system in place to do it.

A consensus is emerging to include billions of dollars for transportation projects in an economic stimulus plan to be taken up shortly after the presidential election.

Infrastructure investments may well be the best short-term stimulus available to policymakers. Supporters tout the two-for-one benefits of fixing crumbling highways and bridges while pumping money and jobs into a sagging economy. And there's no outsourcing a road crew.

However, standing between your state highway department and all those federal infrastructure dollars is something far more dysfunctional than the local traffic grid – Congress's earmark-riddled transportation funding process.

This reality raises the question whether, as we navigate the minefield of economic recovery, we can afford to take directions from the people that gave us the "Bridge to Nowhere"? Assuming not, we have an opportunity in debating the terms of a stimulus bill to take a small step back toward accountable governance and find a silver lining to the dark economic cloud hanging over us.

There was a time when relying on the federal blueprint for transportation funding would have made a lot more sense. In 1991, 538 earmarked projects were included in the highway reauthorization bill, an average of one project for each member of Congress.

Fourteen years later, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) – the bloated, self-indulgent title of which was sadly well-suited to its contents.

In this masterpiece of pork, Congress saw fit to include 6,371 earmarks, a staggering 12 projects per member, that ate up $24.2 billion of the $287 billion in authorized funding and doubled the percentage of transportation dollars set aside for so-called "high priority projects."

The fingerprints that then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R) of Alaska left all over that bill illustrate just how broken the transportation budgeting system has become.

For example, Mr. Young is widely reported to have added the "Legacy for Users" subtitle to the 2005 act to ensure that the bill's acronym include a nod to his wife, Lu. He also included a generous nod to his home state in the form of a $231 million appropriation for another Alaskan bridge, named "Don Young's Way."

Assuming the public has had enough with doing things Don Young's way, they should demand that infrastructure spending in the stimulus bill be targeted to projects that can create jobs, increase productivity, and promote economic recovery in the immediate future. Most important, this infusion of cash can not simply be plugged into the existing pipeline of earmarks members were awarded in SAFETEA-LU. If there ever was a period when we could afford to indulge these legislative legacy projects, it has clearly passed with the current economic crisis.

Fortunately, a system for programming funds rationally and impartially is already in place. And it entails the type of deliberate, holistic, and farsighted planning that befits a multibillion-dollar investment of taxpayer dollars.

Federally mandated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) exist in each of the nation's 385 "urbanized areas," defined as those with populations of 50,000 or more. These boards are made up of representatives of state and local government and advocates for various transportation sectors (transit, bicycle, freight, etc). They also include nonvoting members that represent the various federal agencies involved in transportation planning and environmental review of projects.

MPOs are charged with developing and updating two primary documents, the strategic Long-Range Transportation Plan and the tactical Transportation Improvement Plan, with which projects are programmed.

If the Senate is, in George Washington's words, the "cooling saucer" into which the rash legislative decisions of the House are poured, the MPO is the sieve that filters the most egregiously unworthy projects approved by Congress. In fact, Gov. Sarah Palin used just such a process to reprogram federal funds earmarked for the "Bridge to Nowhere." The danger that Congress will bypass the MPO process in making emergency funding available for infrastructure projects threatens to remove this vital check on pork-barrel prerogative.

The sobering fiscal realities of 2008 should dictate a rigorous approach to government spending, each new dollar of which adds to the historically high budget deficit and our dependence on other nations to make ends meet.

Both presidential candidates have suggested they would eliminate earmarks as part of their plans to fund the new initiatives they are proposing. By insisting that any projects funded as part of an economic stimulus package be subject to a thorough, impartial analysis of their costs and benefits, the president-elect can signal to the country, and his partners in Congress, that the long journey to pork-free living has begun.

Frank Micciche is deputy director of the Next Social Contract Initiative at the New America Foundation, in Washington.

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