Build a 21st Century Economy? GOP Stalls Even the Highway Bill.

Roger Hickey

Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 with a pledge to end the recession and then build a 21st-century, full-employment economy. His program: invest big time in America’s transportation and energy infrastructure – and in education and training. Today, Americans still support that vision.

Conservatives have blocked every significant plan for investing in jobs and growth since the stimulus. They claim they have an alternative, but their program – conservative austerity – has so damaged the recovery it deserves to be called what it is: economic sabotage. Americans who care about getting back to the kind of growth, and job creation that can raise wages and reduce inequality, need to call out conservative economic sabotage as it happens. And we can see it happening in the Congress today.

The Highway Trust Fund is within a few weeks of going bankrupt, and a variety of conservatives in the House and Senate have stalled sensible plans to replenish that trust fund. Already states and localities are stopping highway and transit projects and many have begun laying off workers because of funding uncertainty. Unless a deal is struck soon, 700,000 good jobs could be lost, according to the Department of Transportation.

Conservative obstructionism comes in many varieties:

  • As my colleague, Isaiah J. Poole has pointed out, “a growing cadre of far-right members of Congress is pushing the idea that federal transportation funding should be handed off to the states.” Forty-two Republicans in the House have co-sponsored something called the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would do just that. Imagine the shape this country would be in if another Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, father of the Interstate Highway System, had followed that philosophy in the 1950s.
  • Other conservatives, claiming to oppose all tax increases, have rejected the idea of raising the gasoline tax, which is the way both parties have paid for filling the trust fund in decades past. And the long, drawn-out debate over how to raise money for transportation without raising taxes has brought the country to the brink of a jobs and highway crisis.
  • And a last-minute highway funding crisis is just what some conservatives are using to get Congress to turn to dangerous gimmicks – like the so-called “repatriation tax holiday,” which would slash the tax rate on U.S. profits that multinational corporations have kept offshore to avoid paying taxes. This “holiday” might produce revenue for the first year or two, but it costs far more than it raises – as much as $96 billion over 10 years – and it rewards companies that use offshore loopholes to dodge paying their fair share. This is an example of “disaster capitalism” as described by Naomi Klein in her book “Shock Doctrine,” which outlines the ways conservatives first engineer a crisis and then stampede policy-makers into handing tax cuts to corporations or advancing other draconian right-wing goals.
  • Another conservative solution to the crisis: fund the highway bill by ending Saturday mail delivery!

It now appears that some kind of deal will be struck to pay for replenishing the trust fund through a variety of technical gimmicks that only an insider can explain. But even as this last-minute deal comes together, officials at Heritage Action, as National Journal and Politico both report, are still telling members of Congress that talk of economic dislocation if Congress fails to act should be seen as “hyperbole.”

This week 23 leaders of national organizations sent a letter calling on Congress “to listen to their constituents and pass legislation to renew robust, long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund – paid for in a responsible way.”

But even if a highway bill patch gets passed, all the conservative obstructionism has already done plenty of damage. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Public Works Committee, declared a “mayday situation” last month, saying the impacts of “this uncertainty” are already being felt as many states have announced that they are postponing or canceling critical transportation projects due to the fear that federal funds will be delayed or cut off. “This will have a domino effect that will be felt throughout the economy,” she said.

Right now, after all this obstruction (and conservative attacks on the very idea of taxation), the best-case scenario for a short-term patch would only put enough money into the trust fund to last until May of next year. That’s better than nothing, but the truly important highway and transit projects require more secure funding to plan for the long term. The last-minute deals now on the table lock us into a schedule of funding that can only keep repairs going, not the longer-term projects that could truly transform our transportation system and reduce America’s energy consumption.

Democrats have fallen into a depressing pattern: a small and inadequate deal gets made, and they utter a sigh of relief, pat themselves on the back for being responsible, and they stop talking about how Republicans imposed such a bad deal on the country. Similarly, although Democrats have put forward plan after plan to expand funding for U.S. infrastructure – for highways, transit systems, energy technology or education and training – after Republicans signal their opposition, Democrats give up and stop talking about what the country really needs – or who has stood in the way of real progress.

America needs a big public conversation about what we really need to rebuild our crucial infrastructure. And what better time than during the buildup to the 2014 elections?

To get that conversation started, the Laborers International Union (LIUNA) last month launched a campaign in 22 cities, titled “Getting Schooled in Infrastructure,” designed to educate the public about America’s huge infrastructure needs.

Click here to input your zip code into their infrastructure map that (dramatically and disturbingly) shows you all the deficient bridges near you. Then use the site to call on Congress to demand investment in fixing our roads and bridges.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has urgently demonstrated that, beyond currently planned and financed investments, the U.S. will fall $3.6 trillion short of what needs to be spent to put the nation’s critical systems, including roads, schools and airports, into a state of good repair.

So why not ask candidates if they agree – and what they would do to fill this investment deficit?

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has outlined an ambitious “Better Off Budget” that would

  • invest $1.6 trillion in direct job creation measures over fiscal 2014-2024 with 63 percent of these investments made before the end of calendar 2016
  • create 8.8 million jobs by 2017
  • invest $820 billion in infrastructure over fiscal 2014-2024

Let’s ask candidates where they stand on the Better Off Budget.

President Obama has proposed a detailed Grow America Act that would address the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund and provide $87 billion to address the nation’s backlog of deficient bridges and aging transit systems.

Why not ask candidates if they support that modest but comprehensive investment plan?

Conservatives think the federal government should get out of the business of investing in infrastructure. Let’s ask voters if they agree with their hands-off, cut-spending approach to roads and bridges.

Progressive populists want to invest in infrastructure:
– to build and repair a world-class transportation system
– to retool our energy system based on energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies
– and to create enough good jobs to achieve full employment, raise wages, and reduce inequality.

So progressives and Democrats should be confident about taking our plans to the American people, remembering that 71 percent support increasing government investment to build and repair roads, bridges, high-speed rail, smart electric grid technology and other infrastructure needs.

(Poll by The Mellman Group, January 9, 2014. Get other polling info at populistmajority.org/.)

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