By George F. Will
"Genuine alarm was excited throughout the country
by what was for the first time widely recognized as a German
menace. In the end a curious and characteristic compromise
was reached. The Admiralty had demanded six ships: the economists
offered four: and we finally compromised on eight."
Winston Churchill, "The World Crisis: 1911-1918"
And that bit of history brings us to the subject
of the highway bill that is currently gestating in Congress.
Perhaps it is destined to become historic for provoking President
Bush's first veto. Certainly it will tell us something about
how American government has, and has not, changed.
The 1998 transportation bill, which expired
last year, cost $218 billion. Bush proposes a six-year, $256
billion bill. The Senate has passed a $318 billion bill by
a 76-21 margin that could override a veto. The House is pondering
a $370 billion bill. They may compromise on $400 billion.
Not really, but the facts are bad enough, beginning
with this one: Congress is itching to ditch the principle
that highway bills should be paid for by the federal Highway
Trust Fund, which means by drivers who pay an 18.4-cent tax
on every gallon of gasoline. At least Rep. Don Young (Republican
of Alaska), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure
Committee, has the courage of his convictions: he favors a
phased eight-cent increase in the gas tax.
That will not happen, Bush having stipulated
two principles: no gas-tax increase and no use of general
revenues. It is encouraging, sort of, that there is sufficient
residual conscience in the Senate to produce trickery. It
is resorting to revenue shuffles and other dubious devices
to disguise the fact that the proposed financing of its $318
billion would go beyond the trust fund.
Notice the argument we are not having. Long
ago, federal spending on infrastructure, then called "internal
improvements," was controversial.
In 1817, South Carolina Sen. John Calhoun's
bill for such projects was vetoed by President Madison as
exceeding proper federal responsibilities. So prosperous Northern
states built their own, and the South became a steadily more
backward and disaffected region. Dealing with the consequences
of that fell to a man who, as a young Illinois state legislator,
supported canals and the rest of his hero Henry Clay's internal
Before such improvements were undertaken, roads
were few and mostly impassable in wet weather. Commerce depended
on sailing ships and riverboats. It cost as much to move goods
30 miles in America as to ship them across the Atlantic. Economic
growth barely exceeded population growth.
Then came macadamized roads. The Erie Canal
ignited construction of 3,700 miles of canals by 1850. Railroads
freed winter commerce from frozen canals and cut the travel
time between New York and Chicago from three weeks to two
The cost of shipping a ton of wheat from Buffalo
to New York City fell from $100 to $10, and the difference
between the wholesale price of pork in Cincinnati (then called
Porkopolis) and New York fell 90 percent. Suddenly urban workers
were spending less on food and more on manufacturing goods.
Infrastructure spending midwived modern America, and remains
an important federal function.
Today's infrastructure spending will not be
so transformative. But it is good luck for those eager to
maximize highway spending and bad luck for persons concerned
with spending restraint that the highway program has come
up for renewal during a presidential election that could turn
on the issue of job losses.
The Senate passed its bill as the president's
chief economic adviser was being pelted with dead cats as
punishment for the faux pas of uttering an economic truth.
The adviser said that exporting jobs that can be done cheaper
elsewhere"offshoring," as to Indiastrengthens
America. When, for example, American X-rays are analyzed in
India, American health-care costs are reduced. Thirty percent
of jobs sent to India are performed for U.S. companies. And
the export of jobs frees U.S. workers for tasks where America
has a comparative advantage.
But trying to slow the highway legislation with
mere reasonableness is like trying to lasso a locomotive with
a cobweb. Infrastructure spending means jobs, perhaps including
the president's. Besides, he knows, and Congress does, too,
that in 1987 President Reagan vetoed a highway bill. And was
overridden. The sound you hear is the diesel rumble of bulldozers
and steamrollers, ready to roll over opposition.