Steve Chapman

The rationale for the program is hard to grasp, given that there are less insane options. Instead of laying out $679 for each passenger flying from Decatur, Ill., to St. Louis, the federal government could spend $40 on a bus ticket.

Even some of the beneficiaries find it all a bit much. Mike Olson, executive director of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, told the Omaha World-Herald, "It's a waste of fuel, a waste of a lot of taxpayer dollars to fly one or two people, or three people, at most a handful a day."

But the program survives because most states get some aid and every state has two senators, who usually hang on to every federal dollar as if it were a Super Bowl ticket.

Nor do politicians like to tell these communities the obvious facts of life. Small towns are ideal if you have an aversion to crime, congestion, noise, high rents and scarce parking. But if good travel connections are your priority, maybe you should live elsewhere.

The Essential Air Service program benefits enormously from the fact that, on the galactic scale of the federal budget, it amounts to space debris. Cut off the 150 communities subsidized by the program, and Congress would hear plenty of squawking, and for what? To save $200 million, which is hardly enough to notice in an age of trillion-dollar deficits.

That's the problem with reducing the federal budget. You can't cut the big stuff because it's too important. And you can't cut the small stuff because it's not worth the bother.

So as a rule, nothing shrinks and nothing disappears. In Washington, problems come and go, but solutions are forever.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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