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GOP Plans to Cave on Transportation Spending

Only conservative solutions will solve our political and public policy problems

We’ve seen this show before.  Republicans propose grand ideas to cut spending and implement free-market reforms; they speak ebulliently about their new ideas, and …they summarily scuttle them and cave to the Democrats.

Earlier this year, Republicans proposed a commendable plan to end the bipartisan pork fest of surface transportation spending.  Instead of continuing the inexorable expansion of transportation spending, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica proposed a six-year highway bill that actually cut spending from $286 billion to $235 billion.  The bill was supposed to cap spending to the levels of its funding source; the 18.4-cent gasoline tax and the 24.4-cent tax on diesel fuel.  Additionally, this bill would have eliminated 70 duplicative projects and cut spending on mass transit.

Two weeks ago, Republicans agreed to pass an eighth stop-gap highway bill, which will lock in the excess levels of spending until next April.  They also passed the 22nd stop-gap FAA reauthorization bill, which will continue to fund the wasteful rural pork programs until next February.

Now CQ is reporting that Republicans plan to cave on the long-term bill altogether:

House Republicans appear to have signed off on what could be a game-changer for the surface transportation bill: adopting the Senate’s approach of finding just enough revenue to keep funding at current levels.

At a meeting last week with stakeholders, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., said Republican leaders had given him the green light to search for additional revenue for the bill that authorizes highway and surface transportation programs.

According to the CBO, the Highway Trust Fund will need roughly $9-$12 billion in annual supplements from the general fund in order to sustain these spending levels.  The Democrats, Big Labor, and the Chamber of Commerce are advocating a hike in gasoline taxes to cover the shortfall.  Republicans are objecting to such a tax increase, yet they fail to divulge how they plan to pay for the highway bill without contributing to the deficit.

Moreover, if Republicans agree to a transportation policy that permanently creates deficits in the Trust Fund, they will be exposing us to the looming threat of a Vehicle Mile Traveled (VMT) tax.  This pernicious idea would allow the government to tax you per mile traveled on highways through some sort of a tracking device.  While the VMT is still in its inchoate stages, such a massive increase in highway spending would lend credence to this terrible idea.

Instead of reauthorizing Democrat failure, Republicans should use Obama’s push for an infrastructure stimulus as an opportunity to reform the entire transportation funding system.  As I noted a few weeks ago, Obama’s assertion that our bridges are crumbling should serve as a quintessential example of the need to abolish the federal gasoline tax and devolve transportation spending back to the states.  Obama has the impudence to complain about crumbling infrastructure, even as he supports the current top-down federal control of transportation spending – a system that requires as much as 20% of funds to be diverted for mass transit and 10% for wasteful pork, such as highway beautification projects.  Since the completion of the Interstate Highway System in 1993, any federal involvement in most state infrastructure projects (beyond maintenance of the HIS) is counterproductive.  Let the states raise the revenue and pay for their transportation projects that they deem necessary.

It is for this reason that Republicans must turn the tables on Obama and demand that we give states complete control over transportation spending and its accompanying revenue source.  That will ensure that each state meets its own infrastructure needs.  If California residents want to use their tax revenue for mass transit or bike lanes, instead of fixing bridges, that would be their own prerogative.  Most states would use their own revenue more prudently.  That would be true federalism.  It would also provide the GOP with much-needed ammo against Obama’s hypocritical criticism of our antiquated infrastructure.

Earlier this month, Senator Coburn waged a courageous battle against these wasteful federal mandates in transportation spending.  Unfortunately, it was a lonely battle – one that was destined to fail.  Now we know why.  There are also reports that Republicans plan to cave on long-term funding for the Essential Air Service program in the next long-term FAA bill.

Even if Republicans wish to ignore conservative policy ideas, they should, at the very least, stick to their own idea.  Then again, we seem to be locked into this circuitous cycle over every budget battle.  They rebuff good ideas from conservatives, opting to die on a lower hill, but ultimately fail to stand on any hill.

At some point, Republicans need to ask themselves why they are spending so much time formulating policies that they refuse to defend.

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