On bikes and obesity

If Senator William Proxmire were alive and still representing Wisconsin in the United States Senate, there is little doubt the General Services Administration’s $823,000 Las Vegas spending spree would make the GSA a leading candidate for a 2012 Golden Fleece Award. Alas, the awards were discontinued in 1987 shortly before Proxmire left the Senate. Though the awards were revived in 2000 by Taxpayers for Common Sense, they have not had the same cachet that came with sponsorship by a member of the United States Senate.

Proxmire began making monthly Golden Fleece awards in 1975. Winners that year included the National Science Foundation ($84,000 for a study of why people fall in love), the Federal Aviation Administration ($57,800 for a study of body measurements of airline stewardess trainees), the Department of the Navy (for using 64 aircraft to fly 1,334 officers to Las Vegas for the reunion of a private organization) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (more than $1 million to study marijuana effects on sexual arousal, hypnosis and facial expressions). The point, of course, was exposing government waste.

To be sure, combating wasteful government spending is a worthy cause, but when you add it all up it never amounts to much in the grand scheme of things — particularly in the era of trillion-dollar deficits. Contrary to the claims of many a candidate for federal office, ferreting out waste will not come close to balancing the federal budget.

So here’s an idea. While we all await the Supreme Court’s decision on whether or not Congress has the power to mandate private purchase of health insurance, let’s think about the multitude of other things the federal government does — and ask ourselves which among them fall clearly within the government’s constitutionally enumerated powers.

Remember, the question is not whether particular federal programs, activities or regulations are good ideas in the abstract. The question is not whether there is a demonstrated need or popular demand for federal action, or whether a perceived problem is national in scope. Our purpose is not to prioritize what the federal government does. The question is whether the federal government has constitutional authority to do what it is doing.

While one might get a multi-million-dollar federal grant to study this question, here are a couple of ideas just off the top of my head.

My congressman, Earl Blumenauer, used to be on the Portland City Council. In that capacity he was a big advocate for making Portland a bike-friendly city. As a long-time bike commuter, I was fully on board with Blumenauer’s efforts to improve Portland’s biking infrastructure.

When he was elected to Congress in 1996, Blumenauer took his bike agenda with him. On Wikipedia, he is described as “a strong supporter of legislation that promotes bicycle commuting,” and it is noted that he “cycles from his Washington residence to the Capitol and even to the White House for meetings.” On his website, being a “bike partisan” is included among his top five legislative priorities.

As a bike partisan myself, I think it’s great that my congressman likes to ride his bike and wants to make riding bikes safer and more convenient. But even after teaching constitutional law for 38 years I can’t pinpoint Congress’ constitutional authority to promote bicycle transportation.