Blog New Political Realities May Sidetrack the Transportation Reauthorization

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Over the past eight months the U.S. Department of Transportation has been conducting a series of “listening sessions” around the country to solicit new ideas from stakeholders and interested citizens for the next multi-year surface transportation bill. The sixth and final session on the national listening tour was held at the U.S. DOT headquarters on July 14. Participating in the latest town hall meeting was the full complement of the department’s senior management team (save Secretary Ray LaHood). Complementing the session with U.S. DOT officials were four panel sessions involving local officials and transportation professionals discussing local transportation issues, program funding, state and local needs and outreach to the public.

A Game Changing Event

The latest listening session took place amid growing speculation by political analysts that the Democrats may lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November. This speculation has been reinforced by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs who commented on last Sunday’s “Meet the Press” and again at his regular press briefing the following day, that “there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.” Gibb’s conclusion was not inaccurate, given that about 60 Democratic seats are in jeopardy and Republicans need a net gain of only 39 to re-take the House. But, as Washington Post political observer Dana Milbank pointed out, when the president’s chief spokesman announces that his party is in trouble, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

A Republican takeover of the House would add to the already significant political uncertainties surrounding the future of the multi-year surface transportation legislation. A Republican victory would mean almost certain congressional opposition to raising the gas tax in the next Congress. According to Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, a total of 173 members of the U.S. House and 412 candidates for House seats as well as 33 sitting senators and 70 candidates for the Senate have signed the so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge. The Pledge commits them to oppose and vote against any and all tax hikes if elected or re-elected, and to focus on spending restraint rather than increasing taxes to pay for new spending. Unlike other similar promises this one is in writing, with a signature and two witnesses.

A Republican victory in the House would also mean an organizational realignment in the House congressional committees. The coveted chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would pass to Rep. John Mica (R-FL) who has already gone on record as saying that “the gas tax is dead” (see our NewsBrief of June 3, “Some Frank and Unscripted Comments from Capitol Hill.”) Nor would Rep. James Oberstar’s (D-MN) ambitious dream of a $500 billion six-year surface transportation bill necessarily remain intact under Republican House leadership, which would be anxious to distance itself from free-spending Democrats and may not fully share current transportation policy priorities of the Obama Administration .

Strengthening Republican resolve to avoid a fuel tax increase in the next Congress would be the projections by the Congressional Budget Office indicating that the surface transportation program is assured of adequate funding (i.e. at the levels authorized for FY 2009) at least through the end of Fiscal Year 2012. With assured funding possibly as long as mid-2013 (if our reading of the CBO projections is correct), a Republican Congress might well decide there is no reason to hurry and postpone consideration of a multi-year bill until after the presidential election of 2012 when a program of infrastructure investment can be considered in an environment less colored by electoral politics.

A Disappointing Session

The DOT Listening session was in some respects disappointing. In a typical “inside the Beltway” fashion, the meeting offered a tribune to a variety of special interests and advocacy groups to advertise their ideas, big and small, and to plead for government attention. For its part, the DOT leadership offered few hints as to its own thinking. However, since the goal of the “listening sessions” was for the DOT officials to, well… listen, they could be excused for revealing little of their intentions.

However, if the purpose of the listening sessions was to offer the DOT leadership exciting fresh ideas on how to reform and refocus the federal transportation program and how to give it new direction and a new sense of purpose, we think the assembled Washington transportation community could have done better.

But then, if  White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is indeed correct in his prediction, the U.S. Transportation Department  need not  worry about having to craft a reuthorization bill any time soon.  

Innovation Briefs, now in their 20th year of publication, are published by Ken Orski. Cascadia Prospectus reprints them with permission.