Congress vacated the capital city late last week for its traditional August recess. President Bush headed Tuesday to Crawford, Texas, and the groaning commenced immediately. Posters Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker could scarcely contain their disdain yesterday for the hot, bleak environs of the Western White House (as chronicled in James Rosen’s piece, “Covering Crawford,” in the July/August American Spectator). The main thrust of their article was the statistic (some could call it a complaint) that Bush, in his fifth year as president, will already have spent more time on vacation than any previous president.
Such griping should make true conservatives nostalgic for the Calvin Coolidge approach to the presidency, or at least a part-time Congress. State houses around the country that only convene periodically understand a basic truth: legislators are dangerous with too much time on their hands. In my home state of Montana, the state legislature meets for about four months every two years. Then they do something revolutionary: go back to work at real jobs. When there’s a genuine necessity for immediate action, they vote to meet and consider legislation. Now governing America’s a much larger task than tending Big Sky Country, but Lamar Alexander was on to something when he proposed a part-time legislature.
Take President Bush’s successes these last two weeks. This “lame duck” has overseen the confirmation of Karen Hughes for her new State Department position and Christopher Cox as the new chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Other recent successes included passage of the highway and energy bills, John Bolton’s recess appointment to Turtle Bay, a warm reception for his Supreme Court nominee, and a virtual guarantee that the firearms manufacturers liability shield will reach his desk.
Given this administration’s first-term spending and government growth, it isn’t surprising that much of this progress comes with a huge price tag. To be fair, Congress shares responsibility for the heaps of pork spending contained in the highway and energy bills. But while that branch of government can point fingers at each other, President Bush alone chose not to exercise his veto.
Though the hundreds of pages of new pork and bureaucracy can be daunting for your average citizen, Citizens Against Government Waste has nicely distilled them. In addition to rather cheap, innocuous renamings such as the “Tip O’Neill Tunnel,” the “Daniel Patrick Moynihan Interstate Highway,” and the “Richard Nixon Parkway,” pork projects for the powerful found their way into the highway bill. Highway bill sponsor Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) was rewarded with a $230 million bridge to serve the 50 residents of Gravina Island, Alaska. As one commentator quipped, at that price each resident could afford his own LearJet. The first phase of regional trail development in Oregon will cost $5 million. Calexico, California, will enjoy a new bike path and public park space to the tune of $4 million. In fact, a tabulation of a small sample of bike path projects alone turned up over $50 million in appropriations. Other projects of crucial national interest include $12 million to modify a San Jose interchange, $400,000 to rehab Syracuse’s Erie Canal Museum, and over $4 million for “intermodal parking structures” in St. Charles, Illinois.
The 1,725-page energy bill also spared no expense, including $14.5 billion in subsidies and $66 billion in other authorizations. It doubled the quota for ethanol use in gasoline, a notoriously inefficient agricultural subsidy. The bill earmarked almost $2 billion for hydrogen vehicle research and development, toward which the private sector is already racing. The Energy Department will oversee $1.8 billion for clean coal technology development.
Unfortunately, even during the August recess taxpayers’ money isn’t safe. Lawmakers don’t return to sit out the heat on the porch with a glass of cold lemonade. They’re listening to constituents’ demands for new projects, which they’ll insert into the first appropriations bill that looks like it could use a few hundred more pages. And President Bush will likely sign it, all smiles and everyone patting everyone else on the back.