This week the Senate will take up another proposal by the Obama administration to create jobs and move the country closer to economic recovery, this one a $60 billion plan for immediate spending on the nation’s roads, bridges, public transportation systems and other essentials to a vibrant, efficient economy. Of that, $50 billion is direct spending and $10 billion would take the form of an infrastructure bank that would be used to leverage private investment.
If this follows the pattern of the previous jobs-creation bills sent to the Senate by the White House, Republicans and perhaps a couple of conservative Democrats will join together and vote against even having a fair debate on the merits of the bill. Such is what passes for democracy in today’s Senate, where 40 percent of the members can dictate what the remaining 60 percent can even debate and vote on.
In this case, the conservative obstruction will be particularly hypocritical.
I was a congressional reporter during the debate on the last transportation reauthorization bill in the mid-2000s. Then, with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate and with a Republican White House, the question was not whether there would be federally funded transportation spending, but it was instead how much fat the final bill would contain, and whose district would get the boar’s share of it. You know doubt recall the answer to the latter question: Then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Don Young, the conservative Alaska Republican, won with his infamous “bridge to nowhere” project.
Fast forward to today, and more than two years after the expiration of that last surface transportation authorization, and congressional conservatives are putting forward a combination of lies and evasions to keep the country from moving to quickly put hundreds of thousands of people back to work doing critically needed repairs and improvements on our transportation network.
The Associated Press on Sunday knocked down one conservative “outrageous tale,” that “the federal government spends one out of every $10 in transportation aid on wasteful projects.” It’s a line that conservative lawmakers have been using to undermine support for increased federal spending on transportation. “To make their case, lawmakers have exaggerated and misrepresented some projects that have received aid,” the AP reported.
In some cases, lawmakers have made false claims that federal dollars were used to pay for projects that were in fact locally or privately funded. In other cases, safety or environmental improvements were mocked: a “turtle tunnel” in northern Florida, for example, not only benefits turtles living near an interstate highway but it prevents car accidents caused by motorists swerving to avoid turtles and other small animals attempting to cross the road.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner has been drumming up support for linking transportation funding to energy drilling. He has proposed that any additional funding for transportation projects beyond what can be raised through the federal gasoline tax—frozen at 18.4 cents a gallon since the 1990s—be paid for through increased oil and natural gas drilling. The idea that the transportation system of the future should be funded in part through more planet-damaging carbon emissions should be a non-starter on principle. But there is also no way that any expansion of drilling and mining could address the nation’s immediate transportation funding needs.
Absent any courage from politicians on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue to address the elephant in the room—a gasoline tax that has not been allowed to increase with the cost of the projects it is intended to fund—the very least Congress could do is adopt the administration’s proposed funding solution: a 0.7 percent tax on incomes over $1 million.
That tax would fully fund the $50 million worth of transportation projects that are proposed in the legislation—including $27 billion to rebuild roads and bridges, $9 billion to repair transit systems, $5 billion for projects selected through a competitive grant program, $4 billion for construction of the high-speed rail network, $2 billion to improve airport facilities and $1 billion for a NextGen air traffic control system.
Every American would benefit from this investment, but it is a particularly good investment for the top 1 percent, precisely because enabling our transportation networks to move goods and people more efficiently results in direct improvements to their bottom lines.
Congress can take an action that will be a win for the corporate sector and for people desperately needing solid middle-class jobs. That’s why this legislation is one of the rare areas of agreement for both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.
Could it be that conservatives are more interested in keeping the economy down until they can get control of the White House again that they would obstruct this win-win legislation? Say it ain’t so, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Better yet, vote like it ain’t so.