In an August 11 article on President Bush's signing of the $286.4 billion transportation bill, New York Times reporter Anne E. Kornblut falsely reported that President Bush "initially set the limit" for spending on the bill at $284 billion. In fact, Bush originally stated that he would reject any bill over $256 billion. Kornblut also failed to note that the bill may actually end up costing $295 billion; the $286.4 billion price tag does not include an additional $8.5 billion counted separately under what critics called an accounting gimmick.
From the Times article titled "Bush Signs Huge Transportation Measure":
Mr. Bush had threatened to veto the transportation legislation if its cost was too high, and he had initially set the limit at $284 billion. But when Congressional leaders reached an agreement after more than a year of wrangling over the legislation, the administration embraced it, and Mr. Bush drew significant attention to it with the signing ceremony.
Other news reports noted that Bush reneged on his initial pledge to limit spending on the bill. For example, The Washington Post reported on August 11 that, in 2002, Bush "said he would reject any bill over $256 billion. Then he lifted his limit to $284 billion." Similarly, an August 11 Associated Press report noted: "The bill's price tag over six years was $30 billion more than Mr. Bush recommended, but he said he was proud to sign it."
Citing Citizens Against Government Waste president Tom Schatz, the Post also reported that the transportation bill may exceed the $286 billion figure that has been widely cited: "[Bush] ultimately signed a bill with a price tag that is $286 billion only because of a gimmick that hides additional costs of up to $9 billion, Schatz said." As The Wall Street Journal noted on August 4, the $9 billion discrepancy Schatz highlighted is between the transportation bill's "contracting authority," or the $295 billion that states could hypothetically spend, and its "obligation limitations," or the $286.4 billion that states will receive in the end from the federal government. Any funds that states spend beyond the allocated $286.4 billion would need to be repaid to the federal government in 2009, under a provision in the act. From the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (H.R. 3, Sec. 10212):
On September 30, 2009, $8,543,000,000 of the unobligated balances of funds apportioned before such date to the States for the Interstate maintenance, national highway system, bridge, congestion mitigation and air quality improvement, surface transportation (other than the STP set-aside programs), metropolitan planning, minimum guarantee, Appalachian development highway system, recreational trails, safe routes to school, freight intermodal connectors, coordinated border infrastructure, high risk rural road, and highway safety improvement programs, and each of the STP set-aside programs, is rescinded.
Even a Republican member of Congress has called the provision a "gimmick." As The Washington Post reported on August 4, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said of Congress's pledge to rescind $8.5 billion in 2009: "Nobody believes that's going to happen. ... It's frankly a pretty transparent gimmick." The August 4 Journal article cited another critic of the provision who called it a "gimmick" as evidence that "[a]dvocates for lower taxes weren't buying" the congressional pledge to "take back $8.5 billion at the end":
To meet White House spending targets while satisfying state demands for more highway money, Congress included an unusual accounting maneuver that calls for cuts to every state's piece of the pie.
On Sept. 30, 2009, the federal government will take back $8.5 billion from the pot of money in the highway bill that President Bush is expected to sign Wednesday. The bill provides money for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure projects. In the bill, the maneuver is called a "rescission" of dollars, and congressional officials and lobbyists who worked on the legislation said the White House insisted on it. The overall highway bill has been advertised as costing $286.4 billion over six years. But the total spending that the bill authorizes adds up to $295 billion. To square the numbers, Congress simply will take back $8.5 billion at the end.
Advocates for lower taxes weren't buying it. "It's a gimmick," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. His group joined others in urging Mr. Bush to veto the bill for a variety of reasons including the rescission. In a letter to President Bush slated for release today, the groups suggest that the cut in states' funding may never actually happen.