Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 8/5/2005 [Archive]

Jeff Flake Passing Up the Highway Pork

Passing up the Highway Pork

An Interview with Republican Congressman

Jeff Flake of Arizona

Jeff Flake, an Arizona congressman, was only one of eight House

members to vote against the $286.4 billion highway bill and mass

transit bill, a pork-fattened law that passed with bipartisan

gusto on July 29 in the House, 412-8, and in the Senate, 91-4.

The six-year bill, which took two years

to pass, allocates federal Highway Trust Fund revenue (mostly

the 18 cent federal gas tax) for road and transit projects in

every congressional district in the country.

Flake voted against it because, in addition to the usual money

wasted on expensive highways to nowhere and light-rail lines

relatively few people ride, it contained an estimated $23 billion

in so-called "earmarks."

Earmark is a congressional euphemism for setting money aside

for one congressman's special project, i.e., boondoggle, into

a large spending bill without having to put the specific project

up to a vote by itself.

The 1,752-page transportation bill's all-time record 6,376 earmarks

included $231 million for a bridge in Alaska that would serve

an island of 50 residents and $2.88 million to construct a

Q: Why did so few congressmen vote against

the transportation bill?

A: Well, it's tough to vote against it when you have projects

in it and there were only a few of us who didn't have projects

in it.

Q: You didn't have projects in it, because

you declined to have a project in it, right?

A: That's correct. We were all offered at least $14 million for

our districts to spend however we wanted and just try to

relate it to transportation somehow. I just think we're headed

in the wrong direction doing that. I had higher aspirations when

coming to Congress than to grovel for crumbs that fall from appropriators'


Q: What makes you so rare in Congress?

A: Well, it's simply become the accepted way of doing business,

to get earmarks, and I just think it's the wrong direction to

be headed.

Q: It's not that you are against highways?

A: No. Not at all. In fact, the more earmarks we have, the fewer

highways that are built. If I'm going to get earmarks for my

district, believe me, I want to have as long a list as possible.

So it is unlikely that I'm going to say, "Hey, my $14 million

or whatever I get should be spent to finish the 202-60 interchange,"

which may be the most critical need in my district. No. I'm going

to say I want a bike path here. I want a transportation museum

here. I want beautification of this street. And as we earmark

things, less money goes to highways. That's the irony in this

whole thing: the more money we spend, the less money we actually

spend on critical needs.

Q: When you're asked what you politics

are, how do you describe yourself?

A: In today's parlance, I'm a conservative. I prefer the term

classical liberal, myself, a la Milton Friedman. But I consider

myself conservative.

Q: We at the Trib have been probably tougher

on conservatives -- for not being very conservative -- than we

have been on liberals.

A: Well, I can tell you, I'm not pleased at the direction our

party is headed on fiscal responsibility. We don't look very

conservative at all.

Q: What is good about that highway bill?

Why is it so important that it be done right?

A: Well, we have the gas tax. The purpose of a gas tax, initially,

was to finish the Interstate Highway System. That was finished

basically in 1980. Ever since 1980 we've just been floundering

as to what to do with the money how to allocate it back

to the states. In 1981, I believe, there were a total of 10 earmarks

in the highway bill. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed it because

there were 150 he considered that excessive. In 1992, there

were 500 earmarks. Then Republicans took over and we said we're

going to change the way we do business here. Yeah, we changed

it. In 1998, I believe there were 1,500 earmarks and this time

6,300. We simply cannot sustain this trend. We're going to be

earmarking every account and there will be less and less money

going to freeways.

I have a good bill I hope we can get to

in the next five years, before we authorize a transportation

bill again. Basically it's called the turn-back proposal. It

would cost about 3 cents per gallon, instead of the current 18

cents, to maintain the Interstate Highway System what is

truly interstate. And then there's no reason for the other 15

cents per gallon to even come to Washington. It ought to stay

with the states and to let the states spend it on their critical


Q: It gets to be pretty silly. Pennsylvania

is now a donor state-we pay into the fund more than we get back.

A: Welcome to the fold. We've been there for a while.

Q: What's the most absurd spending project

in that bill?

A: Well, there's a bridge in Alaska -- $200 million or so

going to an island with fewer than 50 full-time residents. I

believe somebody pointed out that you could buy every resident

on that island a Lear Jet for that amount of money.

Q: But it's going to be built.

A: Yes, it's going to be built. There are things just on their

face that really look pretty funny. I think John McCain has pointed

out one -- that $2.3 million in beautification along the Ronald

Reagan Freeway in California. Reagan clearly would have vetoed

any earmark like that. We'll be digging through this for years,

finding little items that were included. This highway bill became

a catchall for everything.

Q: Part of this bill is money for mass

transit projects, like one in Pittsburgh that will cost $400

million for a 1.5 mile light-rail extension under a river. How

do you feel about the mass transit spending?

A: Oh, there's a big chunk of it for Phoenix. And I can tell

you, the only way they can sell it in Phoenix to Phoenix taxpayers

and Maricopa County taxpayers, is by saying the federal government

is paying half of it. That's how they leverage these projects

that should not be built. I mean, this in Arizona is the boondoggle

of boondoggles.

Q: Maybe we should have a competition?

A: To spend this amount of money on something at best estimates

will carry 1 percent of all vehicle traffic is just absurd, but

because it's federal money, people say, "Well, we can leverage

our state money and it's the only way to get this transit money."

The sad thing is, people defending this bill will say, "We've

been all over this country and we've heard from mayors and county

officials and governors that 'We need this bill. We need this


Well, of course, what would they expect? If you were a governor

or a county official or a mayor, who would rather have taxed

for roads, you or the feds? You say the feds. You're always willing

to pass the buck.

Q: This is a bipartisan problem, though.

There are a lot of people who call themselves conservatives,

Sen. Rick Santorum being one, who votes for these road and transit

programs without criticism and without fail. This must frustrate

you, right?

A: Yes it does. What frustrates me even more is to hear people

like our leadership, over and over, refer to this as a jobs bill.

"Jobs, jobs, jobs," we heard several times. "This

is a jobs bill." Excuse me, but we're not all Keynesians,

now. I didn't think we are, as a party. The notion that we ought

to do this because it is going to create jobs, assuming that

more jobs are created by taking money out of your pocket and

spending it where you think it ought to be spent, rather than

the taxpayers, is simply absurd.

Q: You and your colleague John Shadegg

asked that the $14 million in earmarks be sent to the state of

Arizona's department of transportation. Do you suffer no political

penalties for doing this from you constituents or supporters?

A: No. This is how bad we've strayed. I had a Republican primary

opponent last time. The first reason he said he was running was

because "Flake won't bring home pork won't bring home

the bacon. Gratefully, that didn't get any traction among the

general electorate. But I can tell you that I have three or four

of the five mayors in my district that opposed me, which is pretty

strange. But they think that is the only way they are going to

get money. I've offered for years now what is typically referred

to as the Flake tilting at Windmills Amendment, which I get about

50 votes for, which says if you get an earmark, fine, but it

comes out of your state's formula, not everybody else's. Language

to that effect is actually in this bill. So that's the dirty

secret no one likes to talk about those who are getting

the earmarks, in particular. The high priority earmarks, now

the big regional, mega-projects are still outside of it, but

if you get a regular earmarked project of $2 or $3 million or

whatever, that actually is coming out of your state's formula

this year. So for those who are bragging, "Hey, I got this

project or that one," that money would have come to their

state anyway. It just would have been directed by their state


Q: Is the highway bill a symbol of out-of-control

federal spending and the hopelessness of ever seeing it


A: It's the best example out there. As I've said before, this

is the best example of the worst of politics in Washington.

Q: Do you see it being reformed or changed?

A: Yeah. I think when voters across the country are fed up and

punish those who are in control and that's us and

it may be sooner rather than later.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist

at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at

© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved. Bill is

syndicated exclusively though Cagle


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