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Timothy P. Carney: Why is a conservative group opposing spending cuts?

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Politics Digest

President Obama's budget this week proposed $50 billion in new infrastructure funding. Joining Obama in this fight for more federal infrastructure money will be the American Conservative Union, likely funded by the government contractors who pocket those highway tax dollars.

Republicans have always been unreliable on reducing federal spending. GOP politicians will crow about bloated budgets and dangerous deficits but then load spending bills with parochial pork. Republican talk of spending cuts almost always leaves the defense budget sacrosanct, with highway spending also receiving special treatment.

The Tea Party revolt has blamed this GOP inconsistency for Washington's budgetary incontinence. Everything, including defense and highway spending, must be cut for the sake of our country's solvency and in order to restore our Leviathan to its proper size, the argument goes.

Pushing back against this Tea Party thrust is the ACU's new American Strength Program. Under this program, revealed by the New York Times' Nick Confessore on Tuesday, the ACU plans on "advocating priority investment in two core federal responsibilities recognized in the U.S. Constitution -- national defense and transportation infrastructure."

As ACU Chairman Al Cardenas put it when I asked him Wednesday, "Cutting down the federal government is critical, but how you do it is almost as important. ... The main focus of our cuts needs to be on the entitlement spending and the social services spending."

At least some of the money for this program will come, no surprise, from the businesses that get the contracts funded by the federal infrastructure budget. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association is a Washington-based lobby for construction companies, paving companies, concrete suppliers, engineering firms, and others in the business of building roads and bridges.

Republicans have traditionally supported this industry, but the Tea Party's consistency on spending has been a thorn in the highway lobby's side. "As you know, in recent times, we have often had trouble convincing our conservative friends that transportation infrastructure is a valuable investment and should not be subject to the spending cuts being discussed," wrote Richard Juliano, a top lobbyist for ARTBA and the director of its political action committee, to member companies in an email the Times published.

"We would appreciate your considering a major contribution to this program in support of the A.C.U. effort and encouraging others to do so," Juliano, an alumnus of the U.S. Department of Transportation, wrote.

Cardenas says that while ARTBA is pumping its members for industry funding, the ACU has not "directly solicited" any government contractors to fund the American Strength Program. "I don't want this to overwhelmingly come from those who get these government contracts," he told me. "I have no idea yet who's going to help us fund this project. ... There's no quid pro quo."

It's quite a coup for the road builders to get the ACU on their side because it helps mitigate the budgetary scruples of right-leaning members. The ACU's American Strength proposal even suggested it would score a vote to cut transportation funding as an "unconservative" vote.

"[T]he program will utilize existing ACU programs" including "ACU legislative ratings, the 'gold standard' for elected officials" to oppose transportation cuts, the proposal said.

If successful, the program would fit a pattern of the GOP abandoning its limited-government principles when industry lobbies hard enough for more government.

Cardenas says that defense and interstate infrastructure, unlike most other federal spending, are included in the Constitution as part of Congress' job.

Just because interstate highway spending is constitutional doesn't mean we should spend more. Cardenas, in our phone conversation, focused on what he called the unbalanced cuts under sequestration -- the current across-the-board budget cuts mandated by a 2011 budget deal.

But sequestration's $1 billion in cuts to the Department of Transportation would leave the department's budget authority for 2013 at $83.6 billion -- 19 percent higher than last year.

Cardenas's day job is as a lawyer and a lobbyist. For at least two clients, who paid the Cardenas Group a combined $150,000 in 2012, Cardenas personally lobbied on transportation issues according to his firm's lobbying disclosure filings. On behalf of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the Cardenas Group provided "Assistance in determining funding opportunities for the client[']s priorities," according to filings.

Cardenas didn't address this concern on the record, but he said that his lobbying business is not a central part of his day-to-day life.

Ideological nonprofits need money. A logical place to get that money is from lobbies and businesses that share your goals and priorities. But should defending highway spending be a priority of a conservative activist group?

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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