WASHINGTON - Two presidents -- one Democrat, one Republican -- tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to cut back or eliminate a fund for closing abandoned coal mines that had become a piggy bank for Western states. It took a highway bill to do the trick.
Buried deep inside the $127 billion highway and student loan bill that President Obama will sign this week -- so deep that Wyoming lawmakers didn't see it until it was too late -- is a provision capping the abandoned mine fund and using the $700 million in savings to help pay for the new law. It's a clear example of how a new era of austerity is starting to turn legislating into a zero-sum game: Somebody's gain is someone else's loss.
Highways got money. Bike paths did not. The Gulf Coast secured billions with a provision mandating that 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties from the Gulf disaster go to restoration. The roll-your-own cigarette industry was hit hard. College student loans will keep their subsidies. U.S.-flagged ships will lose some of theirs.
For symbolism, the mine cut may be the most important. As far back as 2001, President George W. Bush proposed cuts to the program. In 2006, Wyoming's GOP delegation reworked the program to protect it. Obama made it a centerpiece for his efforts to cut what he called wasteful programs.
NEW YORK TIMES