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“Just A Reminder”: Congress, Sometimes You Guys Are An Embarrassment

We’re 15 days out from the expiration of our eighth stopgap — yes, our eighth stopgap — to extend funding for transportation infrastructure. The last long-term transportation bill ended in 2009, and here we are, three years later, with no replacement.

It looked, this week, like perhaps we had finally broken the impasse when 72 senators joined together to pass the Boxer-Inhofe transportation bill. But Hill staffers tell Politico that the House won’t take the Senate bill up before the end of the month. Which means, yes, a ninth transportation stopgap. A ninth bill that doesn’t give states any predictable framework in which to make long-term investments. A ninth failure, in other words.

Congress, sometimes you guys are an embarrassment.

And so long as we’re taking the dim view here at Wonkbook, let’s just be honest about it: Boxer-Inhofe won’t solve our transportation problems, either. It’s much better than nothing, of course. And it’s better than yet another stopgap. But both on the spending and funding sides, it’s inadequate.

On the spending side, it only lasts for two years — the House wants a five-year bill, as does the White House — and, at $109 billion, it’s only about two-thirds the size of the president’s budget request for infrastructure, which was, in turn, smaller than what most infrastructure experts thought was needed.

This is a bad time to do a half-measure on infrastructure. We have literally trillions of dollars in unmet infrastructure needs. We have massive unemployment in the construction sector. Materials are unusually cheap because of a depressed global economy. Borrowing is unusually cheap because we’re one of the few safe havens left in the global financial market. And it’s cheaper to repair an aging bridge today than rebuild a crumbled one 10 years from now. So waiting to do the bulk of our infrastructure passing a half-measure on infrastructure investment later is like waiting till after the big sale ends to buy your groceries. It’s just bad financial planning.

Further, as my colleague Brad Plumer reports, Boxer-Inhofe does nothing to stop the Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for by the federal gas tax, from going broke. There are all sorts of reasons the fund is going broke — more fuel-efficient cars, the gas tax isn’t indexed to inflation, etc — but the bottom line is that the primary mechanism we use to pay for infrastructure in this country is in crisis. President Ronald Reagan, you’ll recall, actually raised the gas tax to fund his infrastructure bill, and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) offered an amendment to index the gas tax to inflation in this bill. But that amendment was defeated, and so rather than actually fixing the Highway Trust Fund, we’re exhausting it, and patching the rest of the bill with one-time pay-fors and gimmicks. So the central problem in transportation funding — the problem that has arguably led to these nine stopgaps — will be left for another day.

Boxer-Inhofe is a lot better than doing nothing. It’s a lot better than another stopgap. And Sens. Barbara Boxer and James Inhofe deserve credit for actually moving a bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate. But it’s a reminder that, these days, even when Congress does get around to doing its job, it doesn’t do it particularly well.

 

By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post Wonkbook, March 16, 2012

March 19, 2012 - Posted by | Congress | , , , , , ,

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