The Liberal Ironist’s applause for the Obama Administration and 111th Congress’s legislative productivity minimized a significant failure–and overlooked another outright–of what should have been fairly-procedural initiatives. The Democratic President and Congress’s failure to act on both of these measures decisively could come back to haunt the Democrats, and quite possibly the country as a whole–unless a Republican Representative from Florida sticks to his guns. The 1st failure was the FY 2011 Federal budget, which was covered through a series of short continuing resolutions for the first 5 1/2 months of the fiscal year, through mid-March. At that time House Republicans will attempt to follow through on their commitment in the Pledge to America to cut $100 billion from domestic discretionary spending. The 2nd significant procedural failure was the further deferment of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2009. As with the rest of the Federal budget, new highway bill is proposed to come up for a vote some time in early 2011–according to new House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica (R-FL), preferably in January.
The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2009, successor to the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportatin Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the $286.4 billion highway bill that covered the Federal share of highway and transit funding for FY 2005 through FY 2009. Since the start of October 2009, SAFETEA has simply been renewed at present funding levels adjusted for inflation, as is customary for continuing resolutions. While Federal highway bills often come under criticism as a source of “pork-barrel” spending, all earmarks constitute a very small part of the overall Federal budget, and Federal highway and transit spending has been a central component in the construction and maintenance of our country’s transportation network since the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That legislation that created the Interstate Highway System, linking together America’s cities by road and in many metropolitan areas providing the local highway network used in daily commuting.
Federal highway and transit funding deserves a vocal defense in the face of those who decry it as a source of pork or a driver of “sprawl.” The Federal Government isn’t just relied upon for the construction and maintenance of the Interstate and US routes; around the country many state and county highway projects depend upon Federal grants as well. These grants are contributed to specific projects undertaken by cash-strapped state and country governments and then decried as “pork spending.” In reality these Federal contributions are often essential for the economic benefit of new infrastructure construction. Since the days when Robert Moses could personally plan and oversee construction of hundreds of miles of bridges, tunnels, parkways and expressways in the New York metropolitan area from 1924 to 1968, many parts of the country have gradually gone from congested to paralyzed due to lack of the political will required to substantially invest in new transportation infrastructure. Our pitiful collective failure even to maintain the outstanding infrastructure constructed throughout the mid-20th century is a reality that poses a stark contrast to the contemporary Republican Party’s mythology about being the party of optimism and national strength.
But this time our savior may actually be a Republican, the incoming chairman of the House Transportation Committee. PBS conducted an interview of John Mica back in June 2009 in which he expressed his disapproval with the Obama Administration’s decision to postpone the next highway bill with an 18-month continuing resolution and, more-remarkably, expressed support for the Democrat-led Transportation Committee’s proposed highway and transit bill that would commit over $500 billion in spending on transportation infrastructure–an unprecedented amount of which would be spent on transit projects. He had a reasonable explanation for the postponement of the large bill: “I think that they’ve got themselves overextended with taking on many controversial measures.” The Liberal Ironist celebrates the passage of most of those “controversial measures,” but it’s long-since time we saw the renewal of our national commitment to the transportation system.
The Liberal Ironist has never discussed the highway bill before, because it’s…well, kind of boring. But a recurring theme of this blog is the responsible actions of public figures that sometimes elude us because they are not dramatic. The impressive infrastructure built in our country from the 1930s through the 1970s is the work of American ingenuity–and American government–and is one of the central drivers not only of our economic productivity but also a pervading determinant, for better or worse, of our lifestyles. In spite of his party’s commitment to sharply-reduce Federal spending, Representative Mica seems to understand this well:
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: In terms of your role as a Representative from Florida, and getting funding for your state and your district, what needs to happen to that process?
REP. MICA: Well, I’m more interested in the country at large in terms of infrastructure. If we can provide adequate funds for improvements across the country, then it benefits every district – not just my own. Simply, I’m not taking a parochial viewpoint for my own district or for my own state.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You are a Republican – and you support transportation and infrastructure spending?
REP. MICA: Well, I tell you though, if you’re on the Transportation Committee long enough, even if you’re a fiscal conservative, which I consider myself to be, you quickly see the benefits of transportation investment. Simply, I became a mass transit fan because it’s so much more cost effective than building a highway. Also, it’s good for energy, it’s good for the environment – and that’s why I like it.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: If anything, you’d say that your time in Congress and on the Transportation Committee has brought you around to these ideas?
REP. MICA: Yes. And, seeing the cost of one person in one car…