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Budgetary 'Walls' a Bad Idea

Having won a bruising battle last year to guarantee levels of highway and transit spending, Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, now wants to do the same for aviation.

That would be a mistake. The highway agreement set a bad precedent, effectively setting a six-year budget for highways while all other government programs are on a one-year cycle. More spending on roads and bridges was needed, but the deal prevents appropriators from balancing priorities, which can change over time.

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Mr. Shuster got his highway deal by coming within two votes of altering the 1997 balanced-budget agreement on the House floor. He works from the strength of chairing the House's largest committee (Transportation and Infrastructure); it boasts more than 70 members. He threatened similar action on this year's budget resolution, but House GOP leaders compromised by agreeing to a vote on his proposal later in the spring.

Shuster contends that if the federal government taxes gas for highways and plane tickets for the national aviation system, that money ought to be spent on those projects, not dumped into the general fund - especially when runways have potholes and bridges are falling down. He has a point - the government in effect tells the public it's taxing gas and tickets for one purpose while "borrowing" some of the revenue for another.

But that's no reason to bust the budget by walling off aviation funds. A Senate resolution opposing Shuster's proposal notes that if it were enacted, the combined highway and aviation fire walls would sequester more than the entire proposed transportation budget. Funding for such needs as the Coast Guard, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, rail-safety inspections, and hazardous-materials programs would be cut.

It's one thing to spend more on airports and radar systems, which need the money. It's quite another to blow a hole in the budget and throw oversight overboard by guaranteeing spending levels. The House should follow the Senate's lead and reject the Shuster approach.

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