It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but apparently hurricanes have far stranger effects. On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that she would offer up $70 million, out of the $129 million in highway bill earmarks that she won for her district, to offset the cost of the Katrina relief effort, surpassing the 50 percent target set in the Heritage Foundation's initial highway bill "give-back" proposal. And on Wednesday, members of the House's Republican Study Committee (RSC), a conservative group, made a similar pledge. RSC members including Reps. Mike Pence, Jeb Hensarling, and Jeff Flake, all known for their fiscal activism, matched Pelosi and offered up all earmarked projects as part of an RSC spending proposal that contains hundreds of billion in cuts.
These are bold proposals, especially considering the time and effort that Members of Congress put into securing earmarked highway bill projects and the favor that those projects curry back home. It should be no surprise, then, that many other Members are reluctant to give back anything. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whom we would have figured a more likely RSC bedfellow than Rep. Pelosi, seems "unenthusiastic" about returning transportation dollars to pay for rebuilding infrastructure along the battered Gulf Coast, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "My earmarks are pretty important to that region," DeLay explained to reporters yesterday. "The bill creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. It's an economic engine."
Indeed, Rep. DeLay's home state of Texas did fare especially well in the highway bill, garnering more money for earmarked projects, and more money for low-priority earmarked projects, than all but five other states-$754 million, in total. This includes about $114 million for projects around Sugarland, DeLay's district-just a bit less than Rep. Pelosi's San Francisco received. Last week, Utt identified a few of Texas's low-priority highway bill projects that could perhaps be put to higher use powering Louisiana or Mississippi's economic engine. Among them:
- $800,000 for regional bicycle routes on existing highways in Austin, Texas;
- $3,820,000 to construct Mission Trails Project Packages 4 & 5 in San Antonio, Texas;
- $1,200,000 for development of one-story 300-vehicle parking facility;
- $750,000 to construct a pedestrian/bicycle trail in the Sunnyside area of Houston, Texas;
- $3,300,000 to build a bike trail at Chacon Creek in Laredo, Texas;
- $7,680,000 for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Trial Network in East Austin, Texas; and
- $1,600,000 to construct landscaping and other pedestrian amenities in segments of the Old Spanish Trail and Griggs Road rights-of-ways.
If Rep. DeLay were to follow Minority Leader Pelosi's bold endorsement of the Heritage Foundation's proposal and flag these and other low-priority Texas earmarks for contribution to the relief effort, the rest of the Texas delegation would surely follow his lead.
It is also essential that ordinary rank-and-file Members join in the effort, as many Members may refuse to sign on and contribute their hard-won earmarks, no matter how great the need in the areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, every state delegation has ample low-hanging fruit within its reach. For example, the Virginia delegation could easily justify cutting many of the state's earmarks to privileged constituencies, such as:
- $600,000 to construct horse riding trails and associated facilities in the High Knob area of Jefferson National Forest;
- $240,000 for the construction of the Virginia Blue Ridge Trail in Amherst County, Virginia;
- $400,000 for the construction of a trail along the Smith River in Henry County;
- $2,560,000 for the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Corridor;
- $1,200,000 for the Blue Ridge Music Center; and
- $1,200,000 to improve the Staunton, Virginia, "streetscape."
Virginia's earmark list includes dozens more equally frivolous projects, adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars, in total. Surely, Virginians would be willing to delay or forgo these projects to contribute to the Katrina relief effort. Cutting just half of Virginia's highway bill earmarks would save over $250 million that could be put to higher use.
If every state delegation were to follow suit (voluntarily or at the behest of a congressional majority committed to cuts), over $12 billion in low-priority spending could be redirected to the Gulf Coast and put to work rebuilding the bridges, highways, overpasses, and transit infrastructure that Katrina destroyed, helping the region get back on its feet faster than it otherwise would have. Taxpayers, as well, would benefit from the offsetting effect of canceling such unnecessary spending. And many local parties due to be affected by earmarked projects would benefit, too-despite the fierce combat for earmarks in Congress, the resulting projects often benefit only narrow interests and are unpopular with communities. Rep. Pelosi's bold pledge of nearly 55 percent of her district's earmark funding sets an even higher example that could do even more good.
Offsetting the cost of the Katrina relief effort with funding from low-priority projects and programs is the fiscally responsible thing to do, and strong leadership like that exercised by Minority Leader Pelosi and the Republican Study Committee could make this proposal a reality. Though they are ideologically opposed on many issues, Pelosi and the RSC have much common ground given the magnitude of Katrina's destruction, the state of the federal budget, and the utter frivolity of much highway bill spending. If more of the House's leaders on both sides of the aisle sign on to the "give-back," what seemed an improbability just a week ago will have strong bipartisan momentum and lead the way to a fiscally responsible approach to paying for Katrina rebuilding.
Andrew M. Grossman is Senior Writer, and Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Edward Epstein, "Pelosi willing to give up S.F. funds for
recovery," The San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 2005,