Commentary Magazine


A Sign of the Times

What could possibly be a more local concern than the design and lettering of street signs? And yet the New York Daily News is reporting that the federal government’s Federal Highway Administration (whose website opening page is entirely devoted to touting the glories of the Stimulus bill) is requiring that New York City replace its street signs with new ones that will be more readable and, therefore, presumably safer. In Frozen Sneakers, Iowa, (the late William F. Buckley’s mythical Nowheresville) that unfunded mandate would not amount to much. But the vast rabbit warren of New York City has a quarter of a million street signs, and they cost $110 apiece to manufacture and install. New York’s mayor didn’t know anything about it but didn’t seem concerned, as the state, in far worse fiscal shape than the city, will be paying the $27 million cost.

I haven’t the faintest idea if the new signs are more readable than the old ones, although that strikes me as easily testable. What bothers me is another question. Exactly what provision of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government authority over street signs? The answer, of course, is that none does, unless you count Article I, Section 8, which empowers Congress to lay taxes in order to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States.” But in 1936 the Supreme Court ruled (United States v. Butler) that the general welfare clause was limited to matters of “national, as distinguished from local welfare.” Of course, the Supreme Court in recent decades has allowed the commerce clause, giving the federal government control over interstate commerce, to be used to justify nearly any action of the federal government.

Meanwhile, today marks the start of the new fiscal year for the federal government. How many appropriations bills has Congress passed to fund the government for fiscal year 2011, its most basic responsibility? Exactly none. They couldn’t even come up with a budget resolution.