by Rod D. Martin
April 6, 1998
Don’t get me wrong: I like the new highway bill.
The House of Representatives’ new highway bill does what a highway bill ought to do: it spends money on highways. $217 billion of it, over six years. It repairs thousands of roads and bridges that have become disgracefully dangerous. It expands key elements of the interstate highway system, and it takes a crucial step toward fiscal responsibility by taking the Highway Trust Fund (where your 18.3 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax goes) off-budget, so that it can no longer be used to hide the existence (or size) of the deficit.
And after all, for all the talk of “pork,” from a Constitutional perspective it is certainly far better for the federal government to spend money on highway engineering than on social engineering.
So I like the highway bill, certainly more than nearly anything else coming out of Washington. And I have no argument with the 337 Congressmen who voted for it. But I’ll tell you what I like a whole lot better.
I like courage.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich has courage, and he demonstrated it wonderfully last week. He showed that there is real vision on Capitol Hill, and he made a lot of people think.
Kasich last week proposed an amendment to the highway bill which would have effectively eliminated the federal role in highway spending. Calling it the “Transportation Turnback Amendment,” Kasich suggested the thoroughly radical idea that the federal gas tax should be phased out and that authority over transportation should be turned back to the states.
Had the amendment passed and somehow become law, it would have been the biggest rollback of federal power this century. But it would have been far more than that.
It would have eliminated an odious federal tax regime that steals from certain parts of the country (particularly the south) to subsidize others (mostly Northeastern states with lots of votes in Congress).
It would have shut down a lazy, unproductive Washington bureaucracy with 100,000 employees who do not build a single road, but who do micromanage every detail of how states and counties may build theirs.
It would have eliminated that bureaucracy’s regulatory apparatus as well, which, combined with the bureaucracy’s payroll, adds roughly 20% to the cost of each and every highway project in America.
It would have ended one of Washington’s favorite ways of blackmailing the states (such as the recent demand that states implement sweeping new “environmental standards” or lose 60% of their funding), which allows D.C. to do by coercion what it cannot do by law.
It would have shut down the single most lucrative source of Congressional pork, bringing Congress in one giant leap dramatically closer to the Founders’ ideal of a citizen legislature.
And perhaps even more important than all these things, the amendment would have cleared the way for thousands of states and localities to find the right highway solution to fit their unique, individual needs. The dramatic success of welfare reform — even as limited a welfare reform as Republicans were able to force Bill Clinton to sign — shows plainly how much better a job local government does than Washington’s central planners.
But the most important thing about the Kasich amendment was that it was proposed at all. When a man of Kasich’s stature proposes such radical change, he pumps life into the faithful and begins real debate. The mere fact of the amendment’s existence forces all of us to look at highway spending — and all other spending — in a new light, returning to Constitutional modes of thought long discarded by the left. Like Steve Forbes’ endless campaign for the flat tax — another supposed fool’s errand — it makes us re-examine our presuppositions and remember that a “revolution” ought to be, well, revolutionary.
Thanks to John Kasich, this is an idea with a future. In Gresham Machen’s words, “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.” We should all laud men like Kasich and Forbes for putting such ideas into speculation; they are truly in the vanguard of the revolution.