By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist | August 4, 2005

AT $286.4 BILLION, the highway bill just passed by Congress is the most expensive public works legislation in US history. In addition to funding the interstate highway system and other federal transportation programs, it sets a new record for pork-barrel spending, earmarking $24 billion for a staggering 6,376 pet projects, spread among virtually every congressional district in the land. The enormous bill -- 1,752 pages long -- wasn't made public until just before it was brought to a vote, and so, as The New York Times noted, ''it is safe to bet that none of the lawmakers, not even the main authors, had read the entire package."

That didn't stop them from voting for it. It passed 412 to 8 in the House, 91 to 4 in the Senate.

Huge as the bill was, it wasn't quite huge enough for Representative Don Young of Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. ''It's not as big as what he'd like," a committee spokesman said, ''but is still a very good bill and will play a major role in addressing transportation and highway needs."

One wonders what more Young could have wanted. The bill funnels upward of $941 million to 119 earmarked projects in Alaska, including $223 million for a mile-long bridge linking an island with 50 residents to the town of Ketchikan on the mainland. Another $231 million is earmarked for a new bridge in Anchorage, to be named -- this is specified in the legislation -- Don Young's Way. There is $3 million for a film ''about infrastructure that demonstrates advancements in Alaska, the last frontier." The bill even doffs its cap to Young's wife, Lu: The House formally called it ''The Transportation Equity Act -- a Legacy for Users," or TEA-LU.

Christmas didn't come early just for Alaska. Meander through the bill's endless line items and you find a remarkable variety of ''highway" projects, many of which have nothing to do with highways: Horse riding facilities in Virginia ($600,000). A snowmobile trail in Vermont ($5.9 million). Parking for New York's Harlem Hospital ($8 million). A bicycle and pedestrian trail in Tennessee ($532,000). A daycare center and park-and-ride facility in Illinois ($1.25 million). Dust control mitigation for rural Arkansas ($3 million). The National Packard Museum in Ohio ($2.75 million). A historical trolley project in Washington ($200,000). And on and on and on.

If Carl Sandburg had lived to see this massive avalanche of bacon greasing its way down Capitol Hill, he would have named Congress, not Chicago, the hog butcher for the world. Or perhaps he would simply have seconded P.J. O'Rourke's timeless observation in ''Parliament of Whores": ''Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

Arizona Senator John McCain, who voted no, called the bill a ''monstrosity" and wondered whether it will ever be possible to restore fiscal sanity to Congress. If ''the combination of war, record deficits, and the largest public debt in the country's history" can't break lawmakers' addiction to spending, he asked, what can? ''It would seem that this Congress can weather any storm thrown at it, as long as we have our pork life-saver to cling to."

McCain is a Republican, and it might surprise younger readers to learn that spending discipline was once a basic Republican principle. Hard to believe in this era of bloated Republican budgets and the biggest-spending presidential administration in 40 years -- but true. Once upon a time Republicans actually described themselves with pride as fiscal conservatives. That was one of the reasons they opposed the promiscuous use of pork-barrel earmarks, which are typically used to bypass legislative standards, reward political favorites, and assert political control over state and local affairs.

For example, Ronald Reagan vetoed the 1987 highway bill because it included 121 earmarks and was $10 billion over the line he had drawn in the sand. ''I haven't seen this much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair," he said. President Bush is a great admirer of Reagan's record in foreign affairs. Too bad he shows so little interest in following the Gipper's fiscal lead as well.

When Bush ran for president in 2000, he described his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, as a reckless high-roller who would unbalance the budget. ''If the vice president gets elected," Bush said, ''the era of big government being over is over."

Five years later, what is over is the GOP reputation for fiscal sobriety. Republicans today are simply the other big-government party -- just as capable of squandering public funds, and just as eager to fill barrels with pork, as their fellow-spendthrifts across the aisle.