Last week the Center for Public Integrity reported that almost 1,800 "special interest groups" have already hired 2,100 lobbyists and spent an estimated $45 million to lobby Congress on transportation in the first half of this year. The center, which tracks money in politics, says its investigation of transportation lobbying shows that "Congress's funding of transportation has become a broken process influenced by special interests." According to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, the number of earmarks exploded from just 10 in 1982 to more than 6,300 in the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law.
Along with organizations like the Brookings Institution and the Bipartisan Policy Center and a host of respected experts, the commission has called for the next surface transportation bill to focus on meeting national priorities and to use performance-based, outcome-driven criteria rather than parochial interests and political influence to determine how and where to spend federal dollars. With so much lobbying already under way, will it be possible to write the kind of transformational bill that transportation policy experts recommend? Can Congress and K Street control their appetite for earmarks, and at what point do earmarks go from simply greasing the political skids to undermining good policy?