An Unseemly Process at a High Price
Nineteenth century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck coined a phrase that has survived for nearly 150 years.
"There are two things you don't want to see being made: sausage and legislation." In short, both processes can be rather ugly.
As chairman of a House committee, I can attest that crafting laws can be a long, difficult, and often messy process. But it is the very best system in the world, standing the test of time for more than two centuries. However, even after several terms in Congress, there are still a few legislative practices that simply amaze me.
One such process is the way the government spends - or appropriates - funds each year. During this process, some Members of Congress ignore our established funding framework and instead secure millions of dollars for programs which are completely unauthorized - such as a shrimp research project or a comprehensive study of bear DNA - on the taxpayer dime. I do not participate in this backdoor practice of securing "earmarks," but unfortunately, I'm in a very small minority.
Even more stomach-turning than the annual appropriations process is a specific legislative exercise that takes place every six years or so. It's a process that would make even the most veteran sausage producer look the other way in disgust. However, it's embraced by so many Members of Congress, it shows no signs of changing anytime soon. It's the process of crafting a federal highway bill - one we're about to begin during the next several weeks.
Make no mistake, from my days as a state legislator in Columbus, I've been a supporter of Ohio's critical road and highway projects. And for years in Congress, I've championed policies to reward Ohio with more federal dollars for its use of clean-burning ethanol in its fuel and to treat our state more fairly by guaranteeing a equitable return on the gas tax dollars we invest in the federal government's highway fund. I will continue to do just that in 2004. But what I will not do is participate in a process that's essentially the appropriations process "on steroids." Let me give you a brief taste of what I mean.
Recently, I was informed by the committee which crafts the federal highway bill that I have been "given" $14 million to earmark and fund "high priority" road projects in my congressional district. 434 other Members of the House have been given similar sums. However, individual states already have identified high priority road projects on their own. The Ohio Department of Transportation, for example, has established a Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) of state, local, and regional officials to prioritize potential highway projects in our state. In a recent letter sent to me, the Department specifically stated, "We discourage the practice of securing earmarks for your projects We have concerns that often times the projects earmarked are not priority projects, and the amount of funding secured is usually a small percentage of the overall project cost. This leads to time and funding being spent on projects that sometimes never come to fruition."
That's right. Members of Congress are given millions of taxpayer dollars to earmark projects - many of which are never completed because they are not even state priorities.
You'll be interested to know that when I recently asked congressional researchers to provide me a list of these uncompleted boondoggles from past highway bills, I was told it would be impossible. Why? Because since 1993, some Members of Congress have pressured these researchers NOT to keep such a list. So, why aren't more Members as outraged as me? It may have something to do with the multi-million dollar earmark "allotments" they have been given by those writing the highway bill.
Let's be clear: I support funding Ohio's priority road projects fully and completely. And I will fight for the Eighth District's fair share of the federal pie. That is why I support funding Ohio's TRAC-established list of highway priorities and reject the practice of Members of Congress hand-selecting projects on their own. Over the next several weeks and months, I'll keep you updated on this process and how it affects your roads - and your wallets. Indeed, I hope we can craft a bill that is responsible, fair, and effective. But based on the unseemly process employed to write the legislation, I have my doubts.