Sitnews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska - News, Features, Opinions...


Newsmaker Interviews

Passing up the Highway Pork

An Interview with Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona
By Bill Steigerwald


August 11, 2005

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.
jpg Bill Steigerwald

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 a $231 million for a bridge in Ketchikan, Alaska that would serve an island of 50 residents.

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' tables.

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 priorities.

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 money.'"
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 DOT.

Q: Is the highway bill a symbol of out-of-control federal spending - and the hopelessness of ever seeing it controlled?
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.
©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.

E-mail Bill at


Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska