Reauthorization in 2012 or Gridlock Until 2013?

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Photo: Emily Metcalf

BY RANDAL O’TOOLE – Speaker of the House John Boehner indicated last week that House Republicans will soon introduce a surface transportation reauthorization bill called the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. This is the first real news on the reauthorization front since the House and Senate appeared gridlocked over competing views of what reauthorization should look like.

Earlier in 2011, House Republicans proposed to eliminate earmarks, end wasteful transportation programs such as New Starts, and to spend no more on transportation that the federal government collected from highway users. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, proposed to continue to spend at current levels, even though current spending exceeds revenues, arguing that cuts in spending would result in job losses. As a compromise, Senate Democrats proposed a two-year extension of the existing law, with all of its inefficiencies, no doubt with the hope that it might retake the House in 2012 and pass a six-year bill that followed in the footsteps of the last few bills.


Although Republicans have a better chance of taking the Senate than Democrats have of taking the House, Republicans in recent weeks appear to have caved in to Democrat jobs rhetoric. The new Republican emphasis is not on protecting taxpayers but on promoting jobs, which is why Boehner’s bill is called the “Infrastructure Jobs Act” and not the “Taxpayer Protection Act.”

The most important new provision of Boehner’s plan is a proposal to increase oil & gas production in such places as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to dedicate the revenues from such increased production to highways and bridges. Rather than use oil & gas royalties to reduce the federal debt, Congress has long regarded such royalties as a slush fund to spend on its favorite pork-barrel projects. The infrastructure crisis has been trumped up by engineering companies looking for federal handouts; in fact, America’s highways and highway bridges are in better shape than ever. Dedicating oil & gas revenues to highways would just create another wasteful subsidy, and it would only be a matter of time before Democrats started diverting some of those funds to transit and other boondoggles.

Otherwise, Boehner continues to propose no earmarks; ending or consolidating nearly 70 transportation funds including New Starts; removing requirements that gas taxes be spent on non-highway projects; and streamlining transportation planning. Of course, the devil is in the details, and so far we only have an outline of Boehner’s proposal, not an actual bill.

Senate Democrats are not likely to go along with many of the above provisions, and the environmentalists who support Democrats will oppose increased oil & gas production, especially in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. So what this really means is that gridlock will probably continue through 2012 and actual reauthorization will be left to the next Congress in 2013. Gridlock is not a good thing, as the current bill mandates lots of wasteful spending. But gridlock could be better than a bill that the Senate would pass, which would continue to spend more than revenues and to divert large shares of highway user fees to non-highway programs. The best that can be hoped for is that Tea Party candidates make a strong showing in the 2012 election so Congress in 2013 puts taxpayers ahead of pork and gives up on the idea of slush funds from any source or for any form of transportation.

Boehner’s announcement:
House Transportation Chair Mica emphasizes jobs:
Report that bill will divert oil & gas royalties to highways:
Evidence that highways don’t need infusion of infrastructure funds:
Antiplanner comments on gridlock:


Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood has announced that he plans to leave federal office at the end of Obama’s first term even if Obama is reelected. In making the announcement, he crassly speculated that he would have some “wonderful opportunities” in the private sector once he leaves his current position. This naturally raises the question of what kind of opportunities await a bumbling has-been who betrayed his party’s principles in order to unconditionally support a president of the opposite party.

LaHood will leave a positive legacy of emphasizing safety in interstate trucking and buses. But he will leave a much bigger negative legacy of promoting “livability” instead of effectively spending taxpayer dollars on transportation. To LaHood, “livability” meant giving hundreds of millions of dollars to cities to build obsolete streetcar systems simply because streetcars have become the latest urban fad. “Livability” also meant using federal dollars to mandate (by the threat of denial of those dollars) that cities undertake intrusive social engineering programs designed to coerce people out of their cars.

LaHood announcement reported in Washington Post:
Antiplanner comments:

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