The idea has appealing simplicity—instead of raising federal fuel taxes to pay for infrastructure rebuilding, cut it and let each state determine how much money it needs, which can then be raised through local fuel or sales taxes. It’s called devolution, and the theory behind it is that shifting control to the states will result in more efficient spending of our transportation investments and overall lower costs.
As is often the case, though, the appeal of simplicity is soon overwhelmed by the imperatives of reality. And so, after years of flirting with the concept, we now have one of the Senate’s most conservative members and one of its most liberal agreeing that devolution is a bad idea. More importantly, those two senators lead the committee that will set policy for the next highway bill, whenever it is we actually get one.
Once an advocate of devolution as a way to shrink the federal government, the chairman of that committee, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), last month sent a clear message that he’s changed his mind. “I’m the most conservative member of the Senate, but Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution plainly says what the federal government is supposed to do: defending America and building roads and bridges. This is our responsibility; what we’re supposed to be doing.” And in case his position wasn’t clear, he later called federal transportation funding “a Constitutional mandate,” pointing out that “no state is an island.”
Acknowledging that she doesn’t agree with her Republican colleague on much, the ranking Democrat on the committee, California’s reliably liberal Barbara Boxer, joined Inhofe in knocking devolution, declaring, “This is about the country: One nation under God.”
Of course, there are two legislative bodies that will have to agree before we can hope for a long-term highway bill to replace the temporary funding extension that runs out in May, and the House of Representatives has a much larger majority staunchly in favor of small government initiatives like devolution. Yet even there, both the leading Republican and Democrat on the committee responsible for writing the next highway bill have come out strongly against the idea in recent days.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), committee chairman, points to the same section of the Constitution as well as Adam Smith as arguments for continuing federal investment in transportation. “It can’t be clearer to me: Adam Smith said it, the Founders said it, and it’s why the federal government has had a role in transportation for the last 233 years,” he said recently.
And in House hearings last month, his Democratic counterpart on the transportation subcommittee was a bit more colorful in his declaration that devolution was dead. “We still have a few devolutionists around here,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said. “I just want to put a nail in the coffin, a stake through the heart, and garlic around [its] neck.”
Well, it looks like our legislatures agree on what they don’t want in our next highway bill. Now if they can only find some common ground on what they do want and give us the long-term funding mechanism we need to rebuild and maintain the modern transportation infrastructure we deserve. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. Real action, no matter how critical, is a lot tougher in our current political environment than bashing a discredited idea with clever sound bites.