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The Highway Bill: A Road to Cave City

Last week, several House committees favorably reported the $260 billion 5-year House GOP highway bill to the full body.  This 846-page behemoth is now headed to a floor vote sometime next week.  Simply put, conservatives oppose the House leadership’s highway bill (H.R. 7) because it continues the failed top-down federal approach to transportation spending, while precluding devolution to the states for at least another five years.  Moreover, it eschews the pay-as-you-go funding mechanism of the Highway Trust Fund (eerily similar to the Social Security Trust Fund!) by permanently authorizing a higher level of spending than the fund’s corresponding revenue source; the federal gas tax.

Nevertheless, let’s disregard the policy concerns for a moment and focus on the political argument.  Just as they did with the budget battles of 2011, GOP leadership is selling this bill as the best alternative, a virtuous improvement of past policies.  And undoubtedly, on paper, the version that will be presented to conservative House members (as opposed to the final version after they cave) contains many good provisions:

  • It eliminates the mandate requiring states spend 10% of their transportation funds on transportation enhancements and bike lanes.
  • No earmarks. Dozens of old and/or redundant programs are eliminated.
  • While it continues to fund Mass Transit to the tune of $8.4 billion annually, this legislation bars gas tax revenue from being diverted in order to support public transportation. [Although, in fine print, the legislation will still fund public transportation projects with a one-time $40 billion appropriation transfer from an unknown source (general fund?) into a renamed account called the “Alternative Transportation Account.”]
  • The deficit between the trust fund outlays and the gas tax revenue (anywhere from $30-60 billion over 5 years) will be offset, in part, with royalties from opening lands in Alaska, parts of the continental US, and offshore to oil and gas exploration.
  • Yet again, there is a provision slipped into the bill that grants a permit to TransCanada Corp. for construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Republican leaders are using the aforementioned “sweeteners” to entice conservatives into supporting this “best we can do” legislation.  Putting the federalism arguments aside, does anyone believe that Republican leaders will stick with their own bill when the going gets rough?  All of these reforms are vociferously opposed by the Democrats.  Not a single Democrat voted for the bill on a committee level.  They regard the GOP leadership’s bill with as much contempt as they do the conservative bills – those that devolve transportation responsibilities to the states.  They are simply not going to play ball, especially when they can terrify credulous Republicans with a shutdown deadline.

As the March 31 expiration date inches closer, and Democrats continue to balk at the GOP bill, does anyone really think Boehner and McConnell will stick with the bill and allow a shutdown?  Of course not!  Instead, they will cave on the offsetting revenue from ANWR (which is a non-starter with Democrats) and the cuts to mass transit and enhancement projects, leaving us with the higher levels of spending, but no offsetting revenues.  There will be no Keystone pipeline.  We will be left with the excrement sans the honey.

All House Republicans will accomplish by supporting this bill is legitimizing the premise of outspending the gas tax revenue.  Once we agree that more federal spending – instead of efficient execution of federalism – is the best way to deal with our infrastructure challenges, we will be on the hook for more deficit spending once Democrats inevitably oppose the offsets.  Sound a lot like the cycle of capitulation with the budget battles and extenders package?  Well, it is.

Here is the ultimate riddle of the 112th Congress: why do GOP leaders jettison conservative legislation under the guise of political feasibility, yet push their own watered-down legislation that is, nonetheless, almost as offensive to the Democrats?  Answer: because they never intend to stick with their ephemeral proposal; they intend to cave once they pocket the support from conservatives.

House Republicans must not fall for the honey trap of the highway bill reforms.  It is a road to cave city, paved with the gravel of unprincipled Republicanism.

Cross-posted from The Madison Project

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