The intransigence of Republicans in Congress has become so extreme that even bad results are now considered victories by Senate Democrats and the White House. Raising the debt ceiling—once a routine matter—while agreeing to painful spending cuts is the most prominent example. But a less-noticed one occurred last week.
The Surface Transportation law, which determines how the federal government will disburse transportation infrastructure funds, is normally passed every six years, and it expired in 2009. It used to be a fairly simple matter: tally up the revenues from the gasoline tax, give 20 percent to mass transit, the rest to roads, and send it back to the states. But those days are long gone. Here's what happened this time around:
We needed a transportation law that would meet the needs of our diverse population: more money for bicycling, walking and mass transit and more money for fixing crumbling roads and bridges—as well as a raise in the gas tax, which hasn't gone up for nearly two decades. So after taking office, President Obama, working with congressional Democrats, issued ambitious proposals to meet these goals. But Democrats were afraid to say how they would pay for them. Meanwhile, as Congress focused on other matters, such as health care reform, it passed a series of temporary extensions that just kept the current rules in place.
Then in 2010 Republicans took over the House of Representatives and went to work on a right wing fantasy bill: They would eliminate dedicated funding for mass transit and eliminate environmental reviews for new projects, and tack on irrelevant measures such as building the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. Even the House Republican caucus was divided on this approach, and they could not get the votes to pass it. In the end, Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed on a compromise bill that would last two years, and the House passed a temporary extension of its own.
But in reconciling the two bills, Democratic negotiators conceded far too much. The final bill, set for President Obama's signature, will continue current overall funding levels, but it includes compromises with the House GOP’s reactionary agenda, including eliminating funding for repairing existing infrastructure; cutting funds for making walking and biking safer; the removal of a measure that would have let cash-strapped transit agencies use federal funding to keep operations going; and cutting tax deductions for mass transit by half.
And yet, both Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works committee, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, are praising the bill, as if the mere act of continuing status quo funding is a great investment in economic stimulus. Boxer estimated it would save around 2.8 million jobs, through a mix of dollars for highway and transit construction, and federal loan guarantees to spur private investment.
But that estimate assumes that the funding will otherwise disappear. If you use the current funding level as a baseline, the bill creates no new jobs at all. The number of jobs being created "is basically zero,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research. “We would lose jobs if nothing had passed and Congress let funding lapse. Even then Boxer and Obama are hugely exaggerating the effects.”
Smart growth advocates, too, say the bill is step in the wrong direction. “On the whole, the bill supports development styles which are losing popularity,” said Alex Dodds, spokeswoman for Smart Growth America. “Walkable downtowns are seeing a renaissance across the country, and transportation infrastructure is a huge part of that. The federal transportation bill could have supported these vibrant places much better. What the bill does support are projects that won't deliver as well on their investment.”
LaHood described the bill as bipartisan. That's true if you define bipartisanship as Democrats—who control the Senate and White House—moving in the direction Republicans want. “I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago,” said Boxer.
That sounds a lot like Democrats moving three quarters of the way toward Republicans. Not exactly a result for Dems to brag about.
Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation and federal policy correspondent for Next American City.