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Solving a problem in the clumsiest way possible
It's hard to complain when Congress prevents a disaster, but the resolution of the fight over the Highway Trust Fund is not a striking legislative achievement.
By Steve Benen
The House passed a bill on Tuesday that would keep federal highway and bridge construction funded through May, averting a funding crisis that would have stalled infrastructure projects across the country and cost construction jobs. The $11 billion stopgap bill, which is expected to pass the Senate and receive the president's signature, is funded in part by a tweak to the federal pension system -- a workaround that both liberals and conservatives have criticized.
The final vote was 367 to 55, thanks to a a lopsided, bipartisan majority.
The one thing -- the only thing -- that all the relevant policymakers agreed on was that disaster wasn't an option and allowing the fund to exhaust all of its resources would not happen. This was itself an interesting twist, not only because bipartisan agreement is so usual, but also because far-right activist groups like Heritage Action condemned the bill, and pretty much everyone on Capitol Hill ignored them.
Why? Because voters in conservative districts like to drive on paved roads, bridges, and highways, too.
But the closer one looks, the messier this becomes. The House version kicks the can down the road -- Congress will have to tackle this same policy again next May -- by relying on a policy called "pension smoothing." I'll spare you the wonky details again -- read Josh Barro's explanation from the other day -- but note that Republicans condemned this exact same funding approach just a couple of months ago as an irresponsible gimmick.
GOP lawmakers this week changed their minds, not on the merits, but because the alternative was a tax hike the party refused to consider.
So why are Democrats going along with this? Because time is running out and they don't see any other credible alternative.
The White House sent a very strong infrastructure package to Capitol Hill months ago, which would have expanded funding for highway projects and given the economy a boost, and which Republicans immediately rejected. Senate Democrats eyed solutions of their own, but couldn't coalesce around a plan that stood a chance in the GOP-led House.
For Dems, the calculus came into focus rather quickly: with timing running out before the Highway Trust Fund ran dry, it was either a clumsy-but-inoffensive House plan or nothing.
Given the importance of the fund, which finances nearly all federally-supported transportation infrastructure in the United States, the public can take some comfort in the fact that disaster was averted. Still, as Danny Vinik explained, this was a missed opportunity for smart policymaking.
...Congress's failure to pass a sensible bill in the aftermath of the financial crisis will likely go down as one of the great policymaking failures. Interest rates at that time were at historic lows, construction workers were out of work, and our infrastructure needed significant maintenance. If there ever was a time for a deficit-financed infrastructure package, it was then. But it's not too late; in fact, many of the conditions that made an infrastructure bill attractive still exist. To be fair, Obama has been trying; he has made almost annual proposals to undertake such investment in infrastructure (albeit, not deficit-financed), but Republicans defeated them every time. That's not what the current debate around the Highway Trust Fund is about, though. This isn't about making a long-term investment in our infrastructure. It's about not cutting the current, inadequate funding levels. And the only way Congress could avoid complete failure is by resorting to a last-minute, short-term patch.