Social programs lose out to highways


Back in the Cold War, it was guns or butter. We got guns. Here in the culture war, it's highways or butter. We get highways.

Congress, which pretty much means its Republicans since this is their show, is scrambling to find ways to pay for an epic cement-pouring bill. The Senate wants to spend $214 billion over six years; the House, $217 billion.

Highways for homies

Our senators and representatives are the Jackson Pollocks of asphalt, action-painting the map by flinging out a freeway here, dripping a connector there, splashing a highway to nowhere for Senator Wastrel's homies.

And, in fact, we do need to play catch-up. Along with much else in our domestic life -- schools, parks, sewerage -- we let the roads get seedy in the 1980s while we were drinking the Soviet Union under the table in a military chug-a-lug.

President Clinton came to office pledging to spruce up our transportation and other infrastructures, and he proposes blowing $218.9 billion on highways. But by spreading the spree over seven years, the president would keep the annual outlays within the budget boundaries Congress set last year.

To pay for their excess and mind the budget deal, the House and Senate have to find $23.4 billion in spending cuts. It will perhaps not amaze you that they mean to take it out of the hide of the already much-flayed domestic budget.

The current idea: Cut $15 billion from veterans programs, $4.5 billion from the government-backed mortgage market, $3 billion from block grants to the states for social services, $1 billion from what's left of the Federal Housing Administration.

But that's not likely the end of it. Expect the inevitably howling veterans lobbies to prevail and thus give Congress an excuse for further debiting programs for the poor to pay for the paving.

Election year gifts

Three key forces are at work. First, of course, is the perfectly natural enthusiasm of incumbents for giving trinkets to natives in an election year.

Then there's the obvious payoff. Or maybe it's just coincidence that, as Common Cause finds, two highway coalitions have treated members of Congress and the political parties to $29.2 ++ million over the past 10 years. Top dollar went to the leading members of the relevant congressional committees.

And for many members, especially in the retro House, over-the-top highway funding is one more welcome chance to put the squeeze on social programs.

The first impulse of the Republican right is to convert the federal budget into tax cuts. The only thing worse than any tax is one that costs the high rollers more than the workaday, and never mind what the tax buys. The next best thing is spending on the greedy -- in this instance, auto makers, truckers, oil and construction companies and their unions -- at the cost of the needy.

Actually, highways or butter is a false choice. The Congressional Budget Office just upped the likely budget surplus from $8 billion to the $40 billion range. But, of course, any amount of public spending on the folks who can't afford lobbyists just corrupts them, as no amount of public spending on them corrupts those who can.

Tom Teepen is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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