Highway Robbery

Robert Novak reports:

President George W. Bush and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, normally staunch Republican allies, could not disagree more on the politics of the elephantine highway bill pending in Congress. The president is eager to cast his first veto to show restive conservatives he really is an economizer. The speaker wants to avoid a veto, which would put his beleaguered Republican House members on the spot in a veto override vote, forced to choose between conservatism and concrete.

Bush repeatedly has warned he will veto any bill over his six-year limit of $256 billion, which is $38 billion over current spending. The Senate’s bill would cost $318 billion. Defending his reputation as the reigning Mr. Concrete on Capitol Hill, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska has pushed a $375 billion bill, which is to be cut down to $310 billion in the Appropriations Committee. The gap between Republican Congress and Republican president seems too wide to bridge.

Like much else in Washington, however, this debate is not on the level. Politicians are posturing about how they will look rather than on how much should be spent on what kind of roads. Only senators and select staffers know the actual contents of the bill supported by a huge majority of senators in defiance of Bush’s warnings. Indeed, more public works goodies are yet to be stuffed into this package to satisfy what critical Republican Sen. John McCain calls ”an addiction to pork.”


Democrats, who berate Bush as a spendthrift while proposing higher expenditures across the board, are overjoyed. ”He is taunting the Congress in order to regain his right-wing wacko base who would rather build roads in Iraq than in this country,” said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia. More soberly, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana said: ”I doubt that his first veto would be a highway bill.”

But party lines break down over highways. During the recent Senate debate, the intensely partisan Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada negotiated in the aisles with the intensely conservative Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Mainline Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and liberal Independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont similarly worked hand in hand. Consequently, the final stages of the Feb. 12 Senate debate involved addition of highway money.


The prospect that Bush’s first veto will be overridden does not daunt the White House, with the president getting his first veto and Republican congressmen still getting their highways. That may be too clever by half to succeed with Americans, and Hastert is insisting he will have no part of subjecting his caucus to this vote. While Bush or Hastert will have to back down, realists accept McCain’s prediction that a vast and gaudy highway bill soon will be the law of the land whether the president or the speaker prevails tactically.

I guess if Bush is going to finally take a stand against wasteful spending, this is a good a time as any. But, if I had to choose, I’d rather overspend on highways than on some of the other things we’re wasting huge amounts of money on.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    It’s hard to support bush on a veto of the highway bill. After all, it may be pork, but it’s everybody’s pork, and considering the wacked proposals he gave in his budget (including *more* money for the NEA), it’s mystifying.

  2. McGehee says:

    Maybe he’s forgotten that people in red states use highways too?

  3. Ravi Nanavati says:

    Well, the highway bill did pass the Senate by a 76-21 margin. If one were cynical, one would think that the administration deliberately picked a bill where they could take a stand against wasteful spending without having any politically unpopular spending cuts actually enacted…

  4. What Ravi said.

  5. Ross Judson says:

    The last five years have been the most important lesson EVER on why we need to cut back the federal government and restore power to the states. What the hell is the federal government doing spending ANYTHING on highways, at this point? States should be doing that kind of thing.

    Pork as usual, in Congress.

    I would love to see this President (and EVERY President) get and use a real line-item veto power. What happened to that, anyway? Doesn’t Bush have it now? And another thing — I think that ANY bill should be subject to a split, if 1/3 of members want it to be split. Once split, members would have to vote on each part separately.

  6. James Joyner says:

    The line-item veto was, correctly in my view, ruled unconstitutional several years ago.

    I generally agree on the state/federal divide, although the Interstate highway system strikes me as a legit federal issue, since there needs to be some coordination.