WASHINGTON -- One of the benefits of not having to worry about re-election is that presidents in their lame-duck terms tend to do things that aren't always politically expedient, to show some courage that the first term precluded if another bite of the apple was in the future.
So why then didn't President Bush veto the outlandish highway transportation bill that, with all this country faces, including the war in Iraq, amounts to a callous disregard of fiduciary responsibility? The $295 billion boondoggle is in direct contradiction of the president's pledges for spending restraint and puts his party into the high-roller category once reserved for Democrats.
The answer seems to be that he did so for purely political reasons, giving something to his party's representatives to brag to the home folks about for the next election, no matter the extravagant cost.
He not only allowed the greedy lawmakers to obliterate the line in the sand he had drawn a year ago on this bill, threatening to veto anything beyond $284 billion, he actually embraced the big package and drew attention to it in a major signing ceremony. Certainly the legacy left by the GOP's 20th century icon, Ronald Reagan, was nowhere to be found. Reagan, after all, had vetoed a highway mass transit bill because it had 152 items that amounted to nothing more than pet projects for members of Congress. The current bill had more than 6,300 so-called earmarks, including a few that defy any rationale.
Take the "gazillion" dollar bridge to be named after Alaska's lone House member, GOP Rep. Don Young. The bridge runs from Ketchikan, with a population of some 8,000, to an island that has 50 or so permanent residents. Or how about all those highway overpasses, museum renovations and bicycle trails worth millions? The federal government has no business spending money on a Henry Ford Museum in Michigan or on a visitors' center in a wildlife refuge in Louisiana.
When the money was spread around, the top beneficiary was California, followed by Illinois, New York and Alaska. Illinois, Reagan's home state, received $1.3 billion for 330 projects, including $70 million for a bridge, which just happens to be located in House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district. But Democrats were in the act, too, with both Sens. Barack Obama and Richard Durbin taking credit for a multimillion road widening project.
This was the year the president was supposed to prove he was dedicated to making the hard choices, of leaving his own historic mark of fiscal responsibility for the next generation. By election time next year, what Bush initiatives are left on the table can be expected to remain there. The president's clout in his own party will be severely diminished. And if Democrats make solid gains in both houses of Congress, as is traditionally the case in an off-year election for the party not in control of the White House, the situation for him could be bleak for the last two years of his tenure.
A Republican friend said it wasn't often that he ruminates over the direction of his party, but this was one of them. One thing, he said, that could be counted on with Reagan was his unflinching determination about his own principles.
"The man had six or seven core beliefs, and no one could shake them," he said. "If there was ever a time for Bush to stand up to excess spending, it was with the current bill."
In the not too distant past, Republican presidents and lawmakers reveled in the anti-big government label, leaving the spendthrift tag to the Democrats. But now despite any number of expensive priorities like homeland security, combating terrorism and the huge outlays for Iraq and Afghanistan, the GOP's leaders suddenly have joined those who can't resist the taste of pork. Just the fact that the nation is on the edge or retiring hordes of baby boomers who will tax its ability to stay up with Social Security and Medicare over the next 30 years should be enough reason for a president to restrain spending as much as possible.
If Bush, who has nothing to lose politically, doesn't do it, who will? Those in Congress from both parties certainly have demonstrated time and again that they are incapable of fiscal restraint. The president has about 16 months to show the same determination on the spending front he has on the war front. After that he truly will be a lame duck.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.