A subway from San Francisco to Sugar Land

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Dec 17, 2003 12:00 AM

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi got to have her pork in this year's budget and vote against it, too.

Pelosi's Janus-faced performance on the $820 billion omnibus-spending bill the House passed recently is a classic study in the bipartisan hypocrisy that this fiscal year will help heap about $500 billion onto the national debt.

Pelosi voted against the bill. But that was just for show: She knew it would pass and did not activate her whip organization to oppose it. In fact, her negative vote was only the first act in a well-choreographed drama.

Immediately afterward, she offered a resolution condemning Republicans for the late-night vote on the Medicare drug entitlement and attacking the majority for undemocratic behavior. "It degrades our democracy when secret negotiations . . . rip up provisions supported by both Houses and insert new provisions approved by neither House," she said.

"Such behavior is unfair. It is un-American. And it is unacceptable," she added. It is "government of the few, by the few, for the few, behind closed doors."

But Pelosi herself had slipped things into the very bill she had just voted against -- using the same secretive tactics she condemned.

The next day, she issued a statement bragging about 22 items in the bill she said would "benefit San Francisco and the entire Bay Area." Topping the list: $9 million for San Francisco's Municipal Railway (Muni) to begin work on a new 1.5-mile subway, and $2.5 million for road work related to the subway. Pelosi also slipped language into the bill making it easier for Muni to win an additional $500 million in future federal funding for the subway.

"The Municipal Railway stands to reap a windfall that could total more than $500 million for its planned Central Subway, thanks to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who got a special provision for San Francisco inserted into the $820 billion appropriations bill the House passed this week," the San Francisco Chronicle reported the day after Pelosi's unfair-un-American-undemocratic speech.

Pelosi's "special provision" says that money San Francisco has already spent on a connecting rail line can count as matching funds for securing federal aid for the new subway. "Muni officials say the provision reverses a Federal Transit Administration ruling that separated the two projects for funding purposes," reported the Chronicle.

How did Pelosi win this "special provision"? "Pelosi inserted the language changing the funding formula into the bill during a House-Senate conference committee through a process called an earmark, in which funding language is added without committee hearings or floor debate," the Chronicle reported.

Pelosi's spokeswoman Jennifer Crider confirmed this for me. She also conceded the language could not have been inserted if the Republican majority objected. "They're in charge," said Crider. "The Republicans control who gets what."

Even in San Francisco the proposed subway has some discerning liberals scratching their heads. This is because it will not connect a major residential area with downtown. Instead, it will link a handful of entertainment and tourist venues (PacBell baseball stadium, Moscone Convention Center, Union Square retailers and Chinatown) that are mostly within walking distance of one another and are already connected by public transit.

"I understand, there are people who cannot walk even a block," wrote Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. "I would bet, however, that these people would much rather have a subway that actually went from their homes to downtown."

Why did the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee provide startup money -- and language that may lead to half a billion dollars in future funding -- for Pelosi's boutique subway? Committee spokesman John Scofield told me Pelosi did not get everything she wanted -- which would have included flatly directing the administration to fully fund the subway. But, he also said, "you don't want to have a bill that just has Republican projects."

Right. Speaking of those, Pelosi's Republican counterpart, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (who called the bill "an achievement in fiscal restraint") got $3.6 million for work on an airport in his hometown.

In spirit, then, if not on rails, Pelosi's little subway runs all the way from San Francisco to Sugar Land, Texas.