The Wall Street Journal

  • FEBRUARY 15, 2012

Ready for Another Rotten Highway Bill?

We can dramatically cut the federal gas tax. States could adjust their gas taxes and make their own construction and repair decisions without costly union regulations.

By JIM DEMINT Mr. DeMint is a Republican senator from South Carolina

The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that our national debt could nearly double over the next 10 years—to an astounding $29.4 trillion from $15 trillion today—so you might think Washington would be looking to stop the fiscal train wreck. You’d be wrong.

Despite all the hyperventilating about a tea party takeover in Congress, the sad truth is that in 2011 Congress increased spending from the year before, raised the debt limit by $2 trillion, and funded ObamaCare.

The highway bill is the latest example of Washington’s bipartisan addiction to big spending. Every six years, Congress passes a spending bill that divvies up the revenues from the federal gas tax and other highway user fees. The money goes into an account called the Highway Trust Fund, and for decades Congress has promised not to spend more on roads and bridges than is available in the trust fund.

But the trust fund has run dry thanks to reckless spending and wasteful earmarks, so Congress bailed out the highway program—to the total tune of about $35 billion—in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Circulating now are two competing highway bills that both increase spending and force new multibillion-dollar bailouts. The Senate bill spends $109 billion over two years and includes a $12 billion bailout of the trust fund. The House bill spends $260 billion over five years and includes a $50 billion bailout. Is this bipartisan spending spree what voters asked for in 2010?A

A serious highway bill would at least live within the means of the highway trust fund. But Republicans and Democrats have surrendered to the status quo of unsustainable spending.

The only difference between the House and Senate bills is where the bailout funds come from. The Senate bill pays for the bailout with a bunch of accounting gimmicks that will lead to a larger national debt and higher taxes. The House, for its part, bases its bailout plans on the hope that Democrats will allow us to pursue oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), offshore and in the shale of the Midwest.

While expanding our domestic energy resources is vital, it would be unacceptable to use the revenues from new exploration to grow government and not to pay down the national debt. It’s a textbook example of attaching good policy to a bad spending bill so that conservatives will hold their noses and vote for it.

Here’s a radical idea: Why not pay for new spending by actually cutting wasteful spending in other areas? It’s no wonder our country is near fiscal ruin when the option of cutting spending is not even being considered.

It’s also inexcusable that neither bill repeals the wasteful and corrupt Davis-Bacon Act, which forces the government to pay labor-union wages for federal construction projects. Davis-Bacon harms workers who choose not to join unions, and it needlessly raises costs to taxpayers.

According to the Heritage Foundation, Davis-Bacon cost taxpayers nearly $11 billion in 2011—money that should be going to fix bridges, not line the pockets of union bosses. It’s no wonder Democrats support Davis-Bacon: It’s a congressionally mandated kickback to unions that funnels millions to Democratic campaigns every year. But why do Republicans lack the courage to stand up against wasteful regulations and spending?

Our nation’s fiscal situation is perilous. At $15.3 trillion, our national debt (as measured by the Treasury Department) has already overtaken our national economy, which at the end of 2011 came in at $14.95 trillion (according to the Congressional Budget Office). Bipartisan compromises on spending got us into this mess, and we’ll never get out of it if Republicans don’t offer a fiscally responsible alternative to the out-of-control spending that Democrats endorse.

We should devolve the federal highway program from Washington to the states. We can dramatically cut the federal gas tax to a few pennies, which would be enough to fund the limited number of highway programs that serve a clear national purpose.

In return, states could adjust their state gas taxes and make their own construction and repair decisions without costly Davis-Bacon regulations and without having to funnel the money through Washington’s wasteful bureaucracy and self-serving politicians.

In order to avert a fiscal catastrophe in the near future, we’re going to have to get a lot more serious about curtailing unnecessary federal spending. These highway bills—both Democrat and Republican—are anything but serious.

Mr. DeMint is a Republican senator from South Carolina.


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