The $260 billion House transportation bill could reach the House floor as early as next week. Republicans deserve some praise for producing it. After all, it contains zero earmarks. However, Republicans seem to have punted on the issue of eliminating duplicative transportation programs.
In a blog post, Speaker John Boehner’s press office notes that the bill eliminates or consolidates nearly 70 programs. The post also includes a list of the affected programs. What it doesn’t explain is which programs were eliminated and which ones were simply consolidated. “Consolidating” programs often means stitching two existing programs together to produce a third program, a process that doesn’t necessarily save money and avoids the painful question of whether a program’s mission is absolutely necessary. It can be an exercise in kicking the can down the road.
But it’s never easy for lawmakers to ask the painful questions. The interest groups that benefit from programs are good at making those programs seem important, even vital. One of their favorite tricks is to use cute anecdotes. For example, a grant report about the New Freedom Program, a George W. Bush initiative to improve infrastructure and transportation services for the disabled, tells the story of an elderly man who, thanks to the program, learned how to use his local bus system. The story leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy, but should the federal government really be borrowing money from China in order to make elderly bus passengers happier?
But let’s be magnanimous. By eliminating earmarks, the House Republicans removed some of the demands on the federal trough, and that’s worth two cheers out of three. However, merely consolidating a bunch of remaining programs is not enough; we’re still left with far too many snouts in the trough. House Republicans were elected to the majority in 2010 to make the trough smaller and the snouts fewer. The transportation bill is a half-step in the right direction, but do Speaker Boehner and his team have the guts to get the rest of the job done?