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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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