Bartlett backs highway bill, then backs off

June 09, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Under the heading, "Bartlett Delivers Relief for Commuters, Safer Roads, and More Jobs," a newsletter from U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett touts projects in a new transportation bill that benefit Western Maryland.

The only problem is, Bartlett voted against the final bill.

Bartlett, R-Md., was one of 86 representatives who voted against the five-year highway spending plan in May. His spring newsletter, sent to voters in his district, was printed before the final vote.

Bartlett, who supported the House version in April, said he voted against the final bill because increased highway spending was offset by $16 billion in cuts to health care benefits for veterans.

"In conference, they did what I told them they could not do and still get my vote," Bartlett said. "We are breaking our promises to veterans."


Democrats were quick to pounce on what they saw as a contradiction.

Greg Berezuk, executive director of a grass-roots organization of Democrats, pointed to votes Bartlett cast in 1996 against increasing funding for the Veterans Affairs Health Administration.

"That dog won't hunt," he said. "His justification just does not square with his record on veterans' health care It seems strange when his newsletter touts all the wonderful things the bill does for the district."

Timothy D. McCown, a Democrat who hopes to unseat Bartlett in November, said he agrees with Bartlett's vote to protect veterans' health benefits.

But he criticized Bartlett for using his taxpayer-supported privileges to send publications to voters.

"Why was our tax money used for little more than a partisan, political mailer?" he said. "This wasn't voter information. He did just about as much as tell people where to send their donations."

Bartlett said he remains proud of the legislation's local highway projects, which include $4 million to upgrade the Halfway Boulevard/Interstate 81 interchange.

"What I said about the highway bill is still true," he said.

But he said he could not support cuts to veterans' health benefits or defense spending.

Bartlett said the highway trust fund, supported by the gas tax, is self-sufficient, but said congressional leaders have used some the money to pay for unrelated programs.

Bartlett blamed President Clinton and the Republican and Democratic congressional leadership, who "all continued the fraud that's been going on since (President Lyndon) Johnson."

During the Vietnam War, Congress placed separate trust funds, like Social Security, in the main budget to mask the true size of the budget deficit. By using surpluses from these trust funds, Congress could show a smaller deficit.

By including the trust funds in the budget, Congress shows a budget surplus for this year. When those accounts are separated, however, the government actually shows a deficit.

That's why the Congressional Budget Office projects that the accumulated national debt will increase from $5.5 trillion to $6.4 trillion over the next five years.

Bartlett said Social Security, Medicare, military retirement, Civil Service retirement and other trust funds that account for about one-third of debt should be taken "off budget" and Congress should stop spending the surpluses.

The extra money will be needed in the next 20 years when Baby Boomers retire and Social Security and Medicare take in less money than they pay out, Bartlett said.

Bartlett defended other transportation-related votes he cast this year. He voted for an unsuccessful amendment offered by Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, that would have cut most of the federal gas tax.

That way, states could collect their own taxes and fund their transportation needs rather than funneling the money through Washington, D.C.

"It's even better not to take the money if all you're going to do is give it back," he said.

When the amendment failed, Bartlett said he supported the House bill because it did not contain any "scandalous pork projects" in the 6th District.

Despite agreeing on the final vote, Bartlett and McCown have major differences.

McCown said he would prefer financing highway spending with defense cuts, while Bartlett said he would rather cut programs like the National Endowment of the Arts.

McCown said he opposed Bartlett's moves to hand over responsibility for roads projects to the states. He said such projects are the federal government's responsibility.

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