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Last week, Bud Shuster, the king of pork in the U.S. House of
Representatives, added another star to his tarnished crown. The
Republican from Pennsylvania, who chairs the Transportation Committee,
is out of control. He needs to be reined in or removed from his
leadership post. Hours before the House took up the controversial bills
related to juvenile crime and gun control, Shuster succeeded in getting
a $57 billion package on airports and air traffic control authorized in
the lower chamber. If it remains intact, it will increase spending by a
whopping $14 billion over the next five years.

How did this happen at a time when Congress is faced with having to
carve $24 billion out of this year’s appropriations bills in order to
keep under the budget caps and beef up defense? It was classic
Shuster. He went before the House and made a case for walling off the
money that comes in from the airline ticket tax from anything but
aviation spending. Last year he did the same thing with the gasoline
tax.

This is a sensitive point with consumers who pay these taxes at the
pump and at the ticket counter. They look at the amount of these taxes
and they justify this legalized form of highway and airway robbery by
saying, “Roads, airports and air traffic control must be expensive or
things wouldn’t be so congested.” Most people automatically assume that
the taxes collected in this manner are used to relieve this congestion.
It just isn’t so. However, Shuster’s argument to wall off the gasoline
tax, and this year to wall off the airline ticket tax, seems reasonable
to voters. The last thing our representatives want is to appear
unreasonable to the folks back home, even if it means breaking the bank.

To ensure passage, Shuster and his minions went around to various
members and informed them that they had a certain amount of money in
this airport construction bill budgeted for their districts. Then, they
ask them how they would like to spend it. “It’s free money,” these
members said to themselves. “After all, it’s going to be spent anyway
so it might as well be spent in my district. It will make me look good
to the people back home.” Not surprising, the airport bill passed 316
to 110, even though Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer warned
his colleagues, “It could eliminate entirely any net tax relief for the
year 2001 and force us to renege on our promise for early tax reduction
at just about the same time voters head for the election booth.”

This year’s airport construction bill, like last year’s
transportation bill, is a travesty! These bills always have been a
convenient place for our elected representatives to collect the bacon to
bring home in order to display their power and ensure their
reelections. That’s why you have multimillion dollar terminal buildings
standing vacant in places like Murietta, Calif., which has no scheduled
airline flights, and superhighways being built in places like Blue
Ridge, Ga., where there is little, if any need.

Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning. Last year’s transportation
authorization bill was $30 billion more than allowed under the balanced
budget agreement and funded such things as a botanical garden in
Missouri, water taxis in Savannah, Ga., and Elliot Bay, Wash., a public
television documentary of “infrastructure awareness” and new exhibits at
the Smithsonian museum. Think about that the next time you are at the
gas pump looking through your pockets to come up with some extra change.

After Shuster’s sleight-of-hand, transportation pork in FY1999 went
up an incredible 80 percent over FY 1998, from $710 million to $1.2
billion. It’s not a good value for the people back home because 68
percent of this pork went to just 5.2 percent of the members of
Congress, the big shots on the House and Senate transportation
appropriations sub-committees.

If the leaders of Congress are serious about abiding by the budget
caps, the Senate will cut the airport construction bill down to size,
and members of the House can redeem themselves by revisiting last year’s
transportation bill and reclaiming the money for many of these pork
barrel projects. If they let these bills slide, they deserve to lose
control of Congress.

Last week, when Al Gore launched his presidential campaign, he said,
“I want to keep prosperity going,” but “not by letting people fend for
themselves.” Republicans, on the other hand, say that they want to cut
us loose. However, until they are willing to stop the big spenders in
their party like Bud Shuster, they never will be able to deliver on that
promise.

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