Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2004 / 27 Kislev, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Libs and moderates need to get the federal government off their backs | This is the story of the "Amtrak 21." It's a dramatic tale involving political intrigue and, according to some, near-violence between two congressmen. And it comes with a strong message for liberals and moderates: They, more than anyone else, need to get the federal government off their backs.

The Amtrak 21 is a group of moderate Republicans, mostly from the Northeast and Midwest. These lawmakers represent districts that regard Amtrak as an essential piece of their transportation grid. Their crime was writing a letter that called for $1.8 billion in Amtrak funding.

Rep. Ernest Istook does not like Amtrak. The Oklahoman is the chairman of the powerful House subcommittee that doles out money for transportation projects. Istook had previously sent his colleagues a letter that said, "Every dollar for Amtrak is a dollar less for other transportation funding, including projects in your state and your district."

The Amtrak supporters took the Istook letter as a general statement. Little did they know it was a preview of the grisly revenge he would wreak against them. Istook then picked up an ax and massacred their pet projects.

For example, the Connecticut district of Rep. Rob Simmons lost $6 million for a new highway, $9 million for road widening and smaller sums for other items. During his re-election campaign last month, Simmons had told voters in his mostly Democratic ward that sending him, a Republican, to Washington would keep them in the good graces of the party in power.

Another Istook victim, Rep. John McHugh of upstate New York, had been flattering the chairman for years. When he got money for a Canadian border crossing in 2002, he thanked Istook with great servility. "I am thrilled that Chairman Istook and the subcommittee have honored my request," his press release read. There are reports that McHugh was so enraged by the Amtrak betrayal that he and Istook came close to blows.

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Not only had Istook turned a disagreement into a backstab, but he crowned it with an act of supreme hypocrisy. While crying about the scarcity of transportation dollars, he earmarked $50 million for a new 10-lane highway in Oklahoma City.

Machiavelli advised: "If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared."

It is Istook's misfortune that McHugh is still walking around, as is Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican and another member of the Amtrak 21. McHugh and Weldon are members of the House Republican Steering Committee, which decides whether Istook gets to keep his job on the transportation subcommittee.

Istook may well fear for his future as a congressional "cardinal" who controls a vast budget. He has sent an apologetic note to the Republicans he savaged. And his spokesman recently noted that the Amtrak 21 did not have their every project cut from the transportation bill.

The bigger point is this: Liberals and moderates should start taking better care of themselves. Conservatives say they want a smaller federal government and stronger states. Great. Connecticut sends $19 billion more in taxes to Washington than does Oklahoma, which has virtually the same population. Imagine what Connecticut could do if it kept that money at home.

Conservatives don't want to spend money on Amtrak? Fine. Privatize the thing, cut it up, and let the weak lines die. The Northeast Corridor actually makes a profit. The Northeast states can plow those profits back into their transportation system. If they wish to upgrade service, they can tax themselves.

And if the good people of Oklahoma want a 10-lane highway, they should raise their own taxes or charge tolls to pay for it. Tolls are all the rage. Texas and Louisiana are now encouraging their metro areas to put tolls on their new roads. Tolls collected in 34 states rake in $6 billion a year.

As for public transportation, the Dallas-Fort Worth area is considering a sales-tax hike to pay for a regional rail system. And in Connecticut, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays wants a higher gas tax to improve commuter train service.

Free the Amtrak 21, and send them to their state capitals. Let them create the transportation systems they want with their own cash. And rather than play humiliating money games in Washington, they should work to end them.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.