Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Republican War on Transportation Funding

The fight over the re-authorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users of 2009 or SAFETEA-LU in the Moving Ahead in the 21st century (MAP-21) has been acrimonious and fought largely on partisan lines. It’s been debated for months and no lasting agreement can be reached. Now that Congress is in conference committee ideally they would add most of the Senate’s language from S. 1813, MAP-21 to the House bill and see that through final passage.

Transportation funding is a great way to stimulate the economy and has never been so contentious. It has been an area of general agreement since Reagan. In 1982, the bill signed by him gave 80 percent of the Highway Trust Fund to highways, bridges and tunnels and 20 percent to mass transit. The last authorization, SAFE-LU was signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2005. It was previously extended last fall to March 31st.

The problem with the transportation re-authorization is that it comes near the divide over whether the best way to improve the economy is through deficit reduction or government spending. President Obama has been a consistent supporter of increased funding for transportation.

A large coalition has formed supporting increased funding for transportation. The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce have united in calling for increased transit funding. In addition, interests not unusually interested in transportation have gotten involved including hotels, food, retail, hospitals and civil rights groups. 

It should be noted that the original bill the House Republicans cut public transportation which largely benefits the groups most vulnerable (as usual). Since the extension passed, there’s an opportunity for MAP-21 to be moved further. Due to the bipartisan margin with which MAP-21 passed the Senate, Boehner and his conservative allies don’t have a great bargaining position. This next extension passed before June 30th will be in effect until after the election.

Only dire situations have motivated the House Republicans to cooperate thus far in the 112th Congress. Like the payroll tax cut fight, Boehner will likely be forced to back a moderate bill with Democratic support. Boehner seems to just be following orders, as is Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey who opposed funding the new tunnel from New York to New Jersey, which from my personal experience is badly needed.

Since many of the Senate’s leaders on the issue including Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have been appointed to the relevant committee, it looks like once again Boehner will look bad. It may not happen in front of the cameras, like the debt ceiling fight, but it will likely to occur. Being an election year, little of substance is likely to get completed.

Obama can easily point to this as a failure of the Republican “Do Nothing” Congress and score some points on the campaign trail. However, as the President he is the one held responsible for the economy which would be improved by the bill, not the House Republicans. Unless he can alter the narrative or maintain the media’s concentration on that issue, then his poll numbers will continue to be mediocre and we may yet see a President Romney, heaven forbid.