Congress Aims To Offer Highway Trust Fund A Chance To Die Another Day

Isaiah J. Poole

Tax-writing committees in both the House and Senate have voted to send to their respective chambers bills that would put a temporary patch on the nation’s seriously wounded and weakened Highway Trust Fund.

In effect, members of both parties in both houses have elected to reduce the debate over the future of transportation spending – and the jobs that would be created by that spending – to a discussion of the size and material of the Band-Aid, rather than what needs to be done to cure the patient.

What’s worse – to stretch the medical analogy further – Congress is about to agree to put off the work of actually curing the patient until next year, when it’s possible a more extremist, ideological Congress might just as soon shutter the operating room and let the patient die.

That’s unfortunately not as far-fetched as it sounds. A growing cadre of far-right members of Congress is warming to the idea that federal transportation funding should be handed off to the states. Instead of a federal gasoline tax that goes into a Highway Trust Fund to help states meet national transportation priorities, that tax is allowed to expire and states are pretty much left to their own devices.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) broached that position today when the Senate Finance Committee voted to send its highway funding patch to the Senate floor. “We ought to cut Washington out as the expensive middleman,” he said, adding that “states are pretty darn good at prioritizing” where transportation dollars should be spent.

That’s highly debatable, but that hasn’t stopped some on the far right from elevating that nostrum as holy writ. The Heritage Foundation’s political arm Heritage Action has listed as a “key vote” the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would decrease the federal gasoline tax and “empower the states to fund and manage their transportation programs and priorities—not those of Washington bureaucrats or influential lobbyists.” The bill has 42 House cosponsors, all Republican.

If Republicans succeed in taking control of the Senate this fall, and there is nothing that compels Congress to come up with a long-term transportation bill before its adjournment at the end of the year, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which anti-federal ideologues in both houses see the paralysis over transportation funding as an opportunity to finally get their way. At the very least, their continuing efforts to “starve the beast” will have the intended effect of forcing states to turn away from Washington and take matters into their own hands, as best they can.

If they win, this will take our transportation policy backward, not forward. Interstate commerce is a core federal responsibility, and until now that was not up for partisan debate. The creation of the interstate highway system was borne out of that responsibility. So have been the programs over the years to maintain and improve the system; to supplement it with public transportation and other amenities; to ensure that our transportation investments are environmentally responsible, and support smart and sustainable economic growth; and to ensure that the interests of all Americans are well served by our transportation tax dollars.

There is a more immediate and concrete reason why we need to tell Congress that it is wrong to agree to a short-term fix into 2015. We have a continuing jobs crisis, particularly in areas such as construction, that can be immediately addressed by a significant increase now in our transportation infrastructure. And we have literally trillions of dollars worth of projects that should be done around the country over the next decade. But states won’t commit to those multiyear projects and create those jobs as long as Congress is trickling federal dollars out a few months at a time.

It is true that what Congress is likely to pass to extend transportation funding won’t prohibit members from agreeing on a long-term funding solution before the end of the year. But it will give Congress an escape hatch it will likely use, as Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, noted in his criticism of the bill. “One of the things I remember my dad saying over and over again: A job requires the time we allocate to do a job,” Carper said. “If we say we’re going to allocate the funding for a six-year transportation bill this year, we’ll do it this year, and if we give ourselves to next May, we’ll take that long.”

That’s why we will need more grassroots pressure on Congress to act now – and surely no later than the end of the year – to pass a multiyear transportation reauthorization bill. The stakes are high for everyone – for people who commute to and from work, for people who are looking for work, for people who struggle with the distance between where they can afford to live and where the jobs are, for people and companies whose livelihoods depend on the ability of delivery trucks to move from supplier to customer, for a nation whose global competitiveness is increasingly at risk because its transportation network is not keeping pace with that of other major countries.

This week, a cross-section of leaders and activists met in Washington to plot the next steps toward building a “full-employment movement.” Increasing our infrastructure investment is a core objective of that movement. We will have to redouble our efforts in the coming weeks to amplify that movement, so that the fear of running afoul of that movement sirs Congress to the sense of urgency it so clearly lacks.

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