If a pair of senators from Mississippi have their way, our federal government will soon find itself being railroaded -- literally.
Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both Republicans, want Washington to invest some $700 million to move a private rail line that runs along the Mississippi coast. "There are all kinds of reasons to . . . move the railroad track," Lott recently explained. "I think from an economic development aspect, a safety aspect and from a future risk of hurricane damage standpoint, it makes good sense."
Some might call this business as usual. Nothing new about a pair of senators using their connections to bring home the bacon while pretending they're acting in everyone's best interests, right? But what's breathtaking is the sheer size of this earmark and its placement within an "emergency" defense spending bill.
There's never been an earmark so big. At $700 million, it dwarfs last year's much-mocked "bridge to nowhere," a comparative bargain at "just" $223 million.
Proponents insist this is different. "It's not a railroad to nowhere, it's a rail line to safety," Brian Sanderson, deputy director of Mississippi's Office of Recovery and Renewal, told the Christian Science Monitor. He argues the line should be moved so it will no longer be in the path of hurricanes.
But the federal project wouldn't do that. It would move the railroad only a few miles. If a major hurricane made landfall in Mississippi, it could still damage the tracks even at their new location.
Furthermore, the company that owns the tracks has already fixed them without federal help. CSX spent more than $250 million to repair the hurricane damage. Trains are running just fine. Why spend $700 million to break something that's no longer broken?
Also distasteful is the way lawmakers are trying to (pardon the expression) railroad this dubious project through. They've tacked it onto an appropriations bill that's supposed to be devoted exclusively to defense and hurricane-relief projects. The bill passed the House of Representatives last month with a $92 billion price tag, about what the White House had requested. But pork-addled senators so far have added $14 billion, and they're probably not finished.
In addition to the $700 million railroad earmark, senators have tacked on $4 billion for drought relief and $594 million for highway projects unrelated to the Gulf Coast -- some as far away as Hawaii.
None of these projects have any connection with national defense. Wasting taxpayer money to move a perfectly good railroad makes no sense, especially if it's being paid for by money that's supposed to be spent helping win the global war on terrorism.
Then again, a free-spending attitude is sadly common in Washington these days. But it didn't used to be, at least among conservatives. Back in 1993, Lott and Cochran helped defeat President Bill Clinton's ill-advised "stimulus" package, a $16.3 billion pork-barrel measure (ironically, almost the same amount that's been wastefully added to the current spending bill). "And where are we going to get the money?" Cochran asked Congress then. "We are going to increase the deficit, which requires the government to borrow more money and to pay more interest. That is not economically healthy, that is economically dangerous."
Back then, Republicans were the minority party in the Senate, and they hung together to fight for principles. These days, too many act as if big government is good government as long as it's "our" government -- a distinctly non-conservative and foolhardy position to take.
Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on pork projects is no way to run a railroad -- or a government. It's time for conservatives in Washington to realize that and return to the principles that elected them in the first place.
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.
First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times