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House Brings Conservative Reform to Broken Highway System

This morning we awoke to find that the New York Times Editorial Board and Redstate’s Erick Erickson had aligned themselves on an issue by both taking a shot at the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act, a bill the House will consider next week. Usually when a situation like that arises, something’s amiss. And that is certainly the case today. It’s not surprising the New York Times hates the bill – it’s the most conservative plan for America’s infrastructure in anyone’s lifetime. That’s why Erick’s post this morning was so surprising. But there’s an explanation. Put simply, he has his facts wrong. I’ve known Erick a number of years, and he’s usually a straight shooter, but his critique this morning missed the mark – big time.

If the bill did what Erick suggested, heck, we’d be against it too. So let’s clear up some things.

For starters, let me explain quickly the central premise of the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act. By breaking down government barriers, it expands domestic energy production and puts in place a long-term plan for America’s infrastructure that is controlled by the states and completely paid for –without raising the gas tax. The bill starts by opening up additional federal land for drilling and energy exploration and uses those royalties to shore up current shortfalls in the highway trust fund. Then, it completely overhauls the way highway spending is done and gives states the ability to set five-year plans to meet their local needs.

Erick suggests that “spending will outpace income over the next five years” in the House bill. There’s no factual basis to support that claim. He’s right that, currently, the gas tax does not generate enough revenue to meet all the infrastructure needs in America. That’s why the energy component is so critical. Not only will more domestic drilling create jobs and address rising gas prices, the additional revenue that is generated will help fill in the funding hole. And because, as some have pointed out, it takes time for additional exploration to come online and royalties to come in, the bill also cuts spending in the short term – largely for federal workers – to make sure the plan won’t add a dime – ever – to our deficit.

Erick also suggests that Washington would still be pulling the strings under the House bill. In reality, the plan eliminates federal mandates and returns control back to the states. There’s a reason President Obama’s Transportation Secretary called it “the worst transportation bill” he’s ever seen – it eliminates or consolidates 70 of his wasteful and duplicative federal programs. Currently, only about two-thirds of federal highway dollars go back to the states for them to control. Under this bill, it will be 93%. What’s more, for the first time in three decades, ALL of the gas tax revenue – the user fee paid by every motorist on the highways – will go to core highway programs.  This means no more federal mandates to light a sidewalk or beautify a park. These core programs will provide state authorities with more flexibility and autonomy than ever, so that the states – not the feds – can determine how best to prioritize scarce resources.

Perhaps Erick’s biggest whopper was to say “it raids government trust funds for pet projects.” The last highway bill had more than 6,300 earmarks – including the Bridge to Nowhere. This bill has zero. No earmarks. No pet projects. No more funneling your money to parochial interests. That is a sea change in Washington that conservatives should be proud of, not cloud with false statements like that. The only specific project the bill makes sure is approved is the Keystone pipeline, overruling President Obama’s cave to his environmental base.

Some are questioning why we need to reauthorize highway spending at all. For starters, if we don’t advance conservative reform, the miserably broken system we currently have will persist. And, because of the reckless way highway spending was done under Democrats and Republicans in the past, the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent within 16 months unless we fix it. Erick’s central, unfounded, argument seemed to be that conservatives had gone Keynesian. That’s ridiculous. No one is suggesting we need to build roads to create jobs. We’re suggesting you can’t have robust commerce and private sector growth without roads and bridges that work.

It’s difficult to find anyone with more credibility on this issue than Speaker Boehner. He has never voted for a highway bill in his 21 years in Congress. Some who want to criticize this bill have. But the Speaker was one of only eight members of the entire House to vote against the 2005 bill that still lingers as a symbol of what Republicans did wrong last time we held the majority. The American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act seeks to right the wrongs of the past – not only of the misguided way the President has approached infrastructure, but also the way Washington has been hosing taxpayers on highway programs for decades.

To review, this plan opens up drilling that President Obama has blocked. It approves the Keystone pipeline. It eliminates 70 wasteful government programs. It’s fully paid-for without a tax hike. It stops federal funding of sidewalks and bike paths. It allows states to control how highway dollars are spent. And it has no earmarks. Now, you see why the New York Times is so furious.

Brendan Buck serves as Press Secretary for Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH).

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