Rethinking a Highway Bill Veto: What Would President Andrew Jackson Do?


Rethinking a Highway Bill Veto: What Would President Andrew Jackson Do?

April 6, 2005 4 min read
Ronald Utt
Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy
Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow for...

Now that the House has passed its bill (H.R.3, known as "TEA-LU") to reauthorize the federal highway program and the Senate has begun floor debate on its version, President Bush and his advisors may want to update and resubmit their March 8, 2005, Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) to reflect deficiencies in the House bill that may be carried over into a final compromise. In this way, the President would encourage the House and Senate conferees to address the surface transportation needs of the nation rather than the pecuniary interest of influential constituencies. And if the legislators decline, the President should prepare to cast his first veto.


The President's credible threat to veto the costly transportation bills that Congress passed last year led to a rare success in holding the line on federal spending. With the House proposing $370 billion against the Senate's $318 billion, the President ultimately forced both sides to accept $284 billion as the upper limit on spending, and that number is now a part of both bills. But while the President won on total spending, Congress apparently believes that its consolation prize was the right to waste the money on frivolous programs that provide little or no safety and mobility to the motorists whose taxes fund the program.


Anticipating this misuse of the legislative process, the March SAP noted (as "Other Major Issues") that "The Administration opposes the proliferation of new categorical programs, set-asides, and so-called 'high-priority' projects in H.R. 3. The Administration believes that the vast majority of federal-aid highway funds should be distributed to States via formula as States are far better equipped than the Federal Government to make appropriate decisions about their own transportation systems."


The House's 2005 bill, which passed with only 9 votes against, is an affront to that presidential recommendation. Not only would the bill expand the number of "high priority projects" from 1,800 seven years ago in TEA-21 to 3,800 in TEA-LU, but it would also create a new earmark category called "Projects of National and Regional Significance." If both earmark programs are enacted, pork barrel spending will rise from 4.4 percent to at least 8 percent of total federal highway spending-and that's just counting the pork projects in the House bill. Once the Senate adds its several thousand earmarks in conference, earmarks could exceed more than 10 percent of all highway trust fund spending. In addition to this earmark explosion, the House bill would also create an estimated 39 new categorical programs, including the anti-obesity Safe Routes to Schools, Transit in the Parks, and the Bicycle Clearinghouse.


Once the Senate passes its version and the two bills are compromised in conference, the resulting legislation runs the risk of adding up to less than the sum of its parts. The billions of dollars that this legislation will waste on questionable programs will worsen gridlock in the nation's major metropolitan areas. In turn, this congestion is capable of undermining the national economy and diminishing regional prosperity, as businesses look to relocate in areas (and to countries) where transportation costs are more manageable.


Although President Bush's SAP only hints that earmarks and other diversions could make the bill veto bait, there is significant historic precedent to guide him to that decision. Between George Washington's inauguration in 1789 and the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson held the record for the most vetoes. During his two terms of office, Jackson vetoed a dozen bills, and half of those he vetoed were for transportation earmarks. One of the tougher decisions Jackson faced, given the closely divided electorate, was when Congress passed a bill to allow for federal funding of part of a new road in Kentucky connecting Maysville with Lexington, hometown of Henry Clay, a major opponent of Jackson and his policies. As a historian writes of the conflict in the House,


[Tennessee Congressman James K.] Polk, acting on the President's urging, tied up the proposal for three long days of House debate. Polk argued that, far from being a national improvement, the Maysville road was a local highway for the sole benefit of Kentucky. To some members of Congress, he said, when a federal project promised to benefit their districts, "anything is national." The debate ended and the bill passed, 102 to 86. Jackson immediately vetoed it. His commitment was to protect the Constitution, he said, not fund pork barrel projects for congressmen, and he planned to pay off the national debt with the funds that would have built the road.[1]


There are many reasons why Old Hickory's portrait graces the twenty dollar bill, but chief among them is his fierce determination to fulfill the responsibilities of the public offices he had the honor to hold. And while Jackson has his detractors, most can agree that whether it was the British in New Orleans, the Spanish in Pensacola, the Creeks in Alabama, or the big spending proto-Whigs in Congress, Jackson was relentless in his pursuit of victory.


President Bush has shown flashes of the same steely will in the war against terrorism, but not so often in the battle over the budget. He won a great victory for fiscal responsibility in 2004, when his veto threat forced House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young to cut his highway spending plans by $85 billion dollars, but that may be the only major budget victory the President can claim. With the new highway bill proposing money for the Issaquah Historic Society Trolley project, the High Knob Horse Trail, Bird Mountain bike path, the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, and a new sidewalk in front of New York City's Museum of Modern Art, one can only imagine the hearty joy with which Andrew Jackson would have inked his veto pen.


In a month or so, President Bush will confront the bill that comes out of conference and will have the opportunity to cast the first veto of his term in office. In preparation for the event, the White House Historical Society should contact its counterpart at the Hermitage and request a brief loan of Jackson's desk, quill, and ink well.  


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.

[1] John Seigenthaler, James K. Polk, The American Presidents Series, Times Books, 2003, p. 46.


Ronald Utt

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy