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Lynn Sweet

Museum gets a plum from Congress

August 10, 2005


Tucked away in the new highway and surface transportation bill, to be signed today by President Bush at a Caterpillar plant just south of Aurora -- in House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's district -- is $832,000 for the Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier.

Depending how you see things, you will either praise the museum for its cleverness in using a transportation exhibit as a hook for snaring federal money, or you will criticize a system that encourages this kind of spending, often referred to as "pork."

Years in the making

Hastert wanted the bill signing in his district. I can see why. The measure, debated for more than two years, is legacy legislation for Hastert, a Republican from Plano, for what it brings to Illinois, and because it finally was passed by Congress.

Bush threatened to veto the bill if it exceeded $256 billion. It is a testament to Hastert's leadership that a compromise spending level was worked out with the White House, Senate and his own House members.

This morning, Bush travels to Illinois from his ranch in Crawford to sign the $285 billion highway bill. The real cost over the five-year life of the bill may swell to $295 billion.

On the last day the bill is in effect, Sept. 30, 2009, $8.5 billion of budget authority is supposed to be rescinded.

Fat chance.

There are more than 6,000 projects in the measure put in by members of Congress, some relating directly to transportation and some, well, like the Children's Museum boondoggle.

Besides Hastert, the Illinois senators, Democrats Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, hustled for the state. Durbin and Obama in the past few days have run a few victory laps around the state touting the bonanza in the bill. Important for the state is a change in funding formulas -- from money collected in gas taxes paid at the pump -- which will let Illinois take in $309 million more a year. In a lesser known but much appreciated quiet move, Hastert et al., also made sure Illinois, the ethanol state, will be allowed to get federal money based on taxes paid for gas blended with ethanol.

(It's not clear yet if the state of Illinois will be able to come up with the necessary matching money to trigger delivery of the federal funds for some of the projects, pork or otherwise.)

Whether a project is worthy or wasteful should be considered on a case-by-case basis. It would be nice if a transportation bill was used to bankroll transportation spending, and not for museum expansion.

The system is imperfect. All projects are not equal.

It's not fair to compare Hastert's push to get $70 million for the Stearns River Bridge to serve some of the fastest-growing communities in the country to what is called the "bridge to nowhere'' in Alaska, clouted in by a powerful committee chairman.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (D-Alaska) has $230 million in the bill to build a bridge in a sparsely populated area, a project that is held up as the best example of the worst kind of congressional pork barrel spending.

One day, if it is built, the proposed Prairie Parkway, which runs through Hastert's district (the bill has $207 million for planning) or a road Hastert has championed for years, to provide western access to O'Hare Airport ($140 million in the bill) may be known as the Hastert Highway.

Some of the harshest critics of the bill come from Hastert's own conservative column.

"It is a pork-laden bill,'' said David Keating, the executive director of the Club for Growth, which argues that limited government and reduced taxes lead to a strong economy. "If this was something the Democrats brought up when they were in power, the Republicans would have been screaming. These projects have nothing to do with transportation.''

The museum caper

It took a bit of sleuthing on my part to determine that the reference in the bill Bush will sign today -- a vague mention of a transportation museum on Navy Pier -- was really for the Children's Museum.

Navy Pier is represented by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and he put the earmark in the bill for the museum, which has on the drawing boards an ambitious expansion plan.

"The Children's Museum does such excellent work with children,'' Davis told me. "This project is designed to teach them about transportation.''

It seems the museum is using a transportation exhibit as a pretext for worming its way into the Transportation Equity Act.

What could be wrong -- and I am paraphrasing Davis here -- with backing a project that "benefits children''?

That's a little off point. The federal government has plenty of programs to help kids. The question about why the Children's Museum is in the transportation bill is aptly put this way by Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

"What does that have to do with the interstate highway system?''

Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.


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