Congress has a flat

The way things are supposed to work is that when the old, six-year federal highway act expired Sept. 30, 2003, Congress would be ready with another new six-year bill.

Things didn’t work. And because of disagreements over the amount of spending, the funding and a late veto threat from President Bush, we still don’t have a highway bill, even though pouring vast amounts of concrete and asphalt is what Congress loves to do.

What we have had is Bush signing six extensions of the old bill, the latest to expire May 31. So frustrated is the U.S. Department of Transportation that it runs a calendar showing how long since the old law expired (542 days as of Friday) and how long until the extension runs out (67 days as of Friday).

State highway officials complain that it’s hard for them to plan projects when the future funding is uncertain. This bill, when it finally passes, calls for $284 billion in spending over six years, most of it _ $225 billion _ for highways and most of the rest _ about $52 billion _ for mass transit.

Both the Senate and the House would have spent more _ the House $100 billion more _ but were talked down by the White House, which is still muttering that the price tag is too high. However, when the House finally voted, its version passed, 417 to 9, which is your basic veto-proof margin.

As it happens, this bill picked up a lot of pork while kicking around various subcommittees; by one measure, 3,736 “earmarks” _ lawmakers’ pet projects _ worth $10 billion. But this bill won’t get any better for being delayed further.

The Senate should act as soon as it returns from recess. It’s long past time to get this show on the road, so to speak.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)