Dangerous games

The game of political chicken that played out in Congress over the debt ceiling was infuriating for most of us. While our elected officials angled for ideological and electoral advantage, we watched a slow-motion train wreck damage, if not derail, a fragile economic recovery. Now I'm afraid we're about to see the same partisan self-interest deliver another damaging blow against national interest,

The game of political chicken that played out in Congress over the debt ceiling was infuriating for most of us. While our elected officials angled for ideological and electoral advantage, we watched a slow-motion train wreck damage, if not derail, a fragile economic recovery. Now I'm afraid we're about to see the same partisan self-interest deliver another damaging blow against national interest, one that will land much closer to home for trucking.

Pushed to the background by the debt-ceiling tantrums was Congress' casual willingness to jeopardize air safety by allowing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to expire. While “essential” workers like air controllers were kept on the job, federal airline safety inspectors were among the “non-essential” left to follow their personal sense of responsibility and work without pay or expense reimbursement.

Now with the current authorization for transportation spending about to expire at the end of this month, it's a pretty safe bet we're not going to see Congress agree on a new highway reauthorization bill of any type before that deadline. Given the animosity and unwillingness to compromise displayed this summer, I have serious doubts about an agreement to even temporarily extend the current authorization so both parties have some time to negotiate a workable long-term bill.

Here's where the issue stands at the moment. In early July, John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, proposed a six-year highway reauthorization with spending at roughly $38 billion a year. That figure is the amount forecast for federal fuel tax revenues deposited in the Highway Trust Fund over the next six years, and it follows guidelines created by the Republican majority in the House that limit any spending to anticipated tax revenues.

The Senate, with its Democratic majority, followed with its own two-year reauthorization proposal from the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Barbara Boxer (D-CA). That plan would spend $109 billion over 24 months, or about $34 billion more than anticipated fuel tax revenues. It would cover some $22 billion of that shortfall with a current surplus in the Trust Fund, but leaves open the question of funding the remaining $12 billion.

Not only are the dollars far apart, but so are the ideological underpinnings. Rep. Mica wants to return Highway Trust Fund spending to a more narrow focus on road-related projects, moving away from a broader spending that includes rail and commuter initiatives. Sen. Boxer, on the other hand, sees increased transportation spending as a way to address unemployment and boost economic growth.

With only 11 working days for Congress before the Sept. 30 expiration of the current highway bill, it is highly unlikely the two sides will reach a compromise given the current atmosphere in Washington. Sen. Boxer has acknowledged this reality by proposing a simple four-month extension of the current authorization to gain some working room. That sounds reasonable, but given the debt-ceiling debacle, I wouldn't count on it.

Just to complicate matters, the federal fuel tax that funds all the projects in any highway bill is set to expire on Sept. 30. Congress had no qualms about letting federal air ticket taxes lapse and losing billions in revenue during the FAA fiasco, so why should we assume they'll be any more concerned about the fuel taxes?

The question isn't new, but I have to ask it: Is this any way to run a government?

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