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Why Are Republicans ‘Evolving’ On Transportation Spending?

Throughout the week, Republicans have expressed their shock and dismay that we would have the unbridled temerity to oppose a highway bill.  They want to know why we are suddenly opposed to such basic things as transportation bills, even ones that will leave us with a $70 billion budget shortfall.  They are impugning our motives, charging us with opposing everything that emanates from leadership.

Well, once upon a time, it wasn’t just conservative outsiders who supported the notion that we peg transportation spending to the level of gas tax revenue.  In fact, just last July, members of the T and I Committee, led by Chairman John Mica, introduced a bill that would do just that.  They drafted a plan for a 6-year reauthorization bill that would cost $230 billion, roughly commensurate to the gas tax revenue over that same period.  At the time, we heaped accolades upon that bill.  On July 18, I wrote the following in these pages:

“As a new spirit of fiscal discipline slowly seeps into Washington, John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has drafted the framework for a new highway bill that will cap the funding for highway and transportation projects to the amount of revenue supplied by the gas tax and other highway user fees.”

In fact, it wasn’t just conservative outsiders who stressed the importance of maintaining the integrity of the highway trust fund as a pay-as-you-go system.  The draft proposal from the T and I Committee made that the selling point of their legislation.  It appears that the document has been removed from the committee’s website (the link in the aforementioned quote is defunct), but I still have the pdf from the time I wrote the article.  It reads like this:

“This proposal puts the “trust” back into the Trust Fund by ensuring that the nation is not spending money it does not have and aligning transportation expenditures with revenues. It authorizes approximately $230 billion over six years from the Highway Trust Fund — funding levels consistent with the amount of revenue being collected — and allows the Trust Fund to stay solvent well into the future.

Other options simply are not fiscally responsible or realistic.

So here’s the $260 billion question: how do we get from a 6-year $230 billion bill, which would be in line with the gas tax revenue, to a $262.8 billion 5-year bill in just a few months?  This new bill (H.R. 7) will overspend the gas tax revenue by almost $70 billion. It will rely on an assortment of random pay-fors over ten years (which will never pass), accounting gimmicks in the trust fund, a “one-time” $40 billion general fund bailout of mass transit, and it will expose us to new taxes and bailouts when the pay-fors inevitably fail.  Wasn’t this exactly what the very authors of the bill deemed “not fiscally irresponsible or realistic” last year?

Why are Republicans eschewing their own principles regarding a self-sustaining trust fund?

The obvious answer is that, as with every other issue, they are terrified to stand by their bill when the expiration deadline approaches (March 31, in this case).

So if they are terrified of standing up to Democrats over the lower spending figures, how in the world are they going to find the courage to hold the line on the drilling revenue bills and cuts to federal workers’ pensions, after they have already agreed to the Democrats’ spending levels?

The answer is that they won’t hold the line.  They will denude the bill of all the drilling provisions and cuts to pensions, while Democrats will agree to remove the tax increases form the Senate bill.  As always, we will be left with more deficit spending, and enshrine the highway trust fund, along with the postal service, as the new bailout enterprise of the federal government.  That is the inscrutable destination of any and all Republican capitulations.

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