Is Ray LaHood channeling Michael Dukakis?

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Yesterday, I had a weird flashback while watching Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on CNBC. As LaHood was gushing about the wonders of light rail, he seemed to morph into Michael Dukakis.

The Christopher Meloni-style eyebrows that the two men share wasn’t the reason for my flashback. The reason was that 10 years ago I heard Dukakis say exactly the same things at a conference in Boston.

Light rail: America’s salvation. The means by which policymakers will finally get Americans out of their cars and off the freeways. Environmentally friendly, job-creating, gas-saving, blah, blah.

While it isn’t surprising that Dukakis is a light-rail true believer, it is surprising that LaHood is. LaHood was once the Republican congressman from Peoria, Illinois — home of Caterpillar earthmovers (employed to build — highways) and the late, great Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen.

Dirksen was an eloquent voice for fiscal responsibility at a time when Democrat President Lyndon Johnson was pushing his Great Society programs, including Medicare. The famous line “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money” was never actually said by Dirksen, but he certainly shared that view.

With such a proud tradition, I wondered, what happened to LaHood? When President Obama nominated LaHood for transportation secretary in 2008, some liberals fumed that as a Republican, LaHood would be a stealth conservative. If they had looked at LaHood’s record, they would have seen that they had nothing to worry about.

For the last nine years of his Congressional career, LaHood was a proud member of the so-called “third party” of Congress — appropriators. Today, thanks to Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and penny-pinching House freshmen, being on the House Appropriations Committee no longer implies an automatic belief in big spending. But in LaHood’s day, it did.

LaHood was such an enthusiastic appropriator that, when he was being nominated to the Transportation slot, the Wall Street Journal dubbed him “Obama’s Secretary of Earmarks,” citing his rank in the top 10 percent of earmarkers.

It should have been no surprise, then, to find LaHood channeling Dukakis’s decade-old talking points on “public investments” in light rail. And in light of the new tight-fisted attitude in the House (thanks in part to the Tea Party), LaHood made a wise and timely move to the more congenial, big-spending precincts of a Democrat executive branch.

You know the saying “once a Marine, always a Marine”? Seems that applies to appropriators too. Just ask Ray LaHood.

Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at joanne-butler@comcast.net.