Congress wants to get serious on highways

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Harsh Winter Creates High Number Of Potholes On New York City's Roads
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 24: Cars travel over a section of highway riddled with potholes on February 24, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. After one of the most severe winters in recent history, New York City's streets have become treacherous in areas, with city workers operating around the clock doing repairs to the roadway. Numerous accidents, auto damage and road closures have resulted from the potholes. While the cracked and rutted roads develop from a variety of causes, salt and plows on winter roads are a major contributing factor to potholes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Just before leaving town until after Labor Day, the House of Representatives passed a three-month extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which the Senate had no choice but to accept. This short-term patch prevented the nation from driving over the “highway cliff,” when funding would have expired completely, but did nothing to resolve the real impasse over the nation’s infrastructure.

Everyone from Paul Ryan to Bernie Sanders admits that America’s economic foundation is, well, crumbling. Bridges have already collapsed, and others are at risk. As the world moves to larger ships, many of our ports are in danger of being cut out of commerce. Our airports are being outclassed by much poorer countries. Not to mention our railroads: Ridership on Northeast Corridor lines has doubled, but deteriorating roadbed, electric lines and tunnels delay and endanger passengers. (One of us experienced this personally, and painfully, on the recent Amtrak train that derailed and killed 8.)

The federal law that funds surface transportation used to be a bipartisan slam-dunk. Supporting highways once was so widely accepted that even those who distrust government spending and oppose taxes still voted for highways and a gasoline tax to support them. In 1956, when the Highway Trust Fund was created, it was funded by a 50 percent increase in the gasoline tax with bipartisan support.

No longer. What was once a must-pass national transportation program has for some become “pork” and “gas taxes.” The HTF, once enacted reliably in bipartisan votes for 6-year intervals, now is funded solely through temporary extensions, none more than 2 years, and some as short as 3 days.

This neglect has consequences for our competitiveness and future standard of living.  Compared to the 1960’s, infrastructure spending as a share of our economy has been cut in half. Furthermore, the lack of reliable federal funding has led many state and local government to stop even planning for infrastructure improvements: why spend scarce dollars on planning for projects when there’s no confidence they can be funded. Delays and hazards of crumbling infrastructure cost time and money, and reduce productivity.

Are we stuck? Maybe not. This is not the first time Congress has faced an impasse on an important issue. On budget issues, it happens frequently. Congress has found ways to resolve budget impasses. Maybe those techniques could preserve our infrastructure, too. Here’s a blueprint for how it would work for transportation.

What: The Special Joint Committee on Infrastructure.  In the past, special committees were created, not just for budget issues, but also to handle homeland security and energy.  They were created by the Congressional leadership to manage issues that were urgent, but crossed enough jurisdictional lines to require more than the traditional sequential committee process.

Who: Members could be the chairs and ranking members of the relevant authorizing and appropriations committees and the tax committees, or their designees.  They could also include the Budget Committee chairs and ranking members.

Process: The ad hoc committee would be charged with developing a comprehensive bill and the means to pay for any increased spending over current law – and they would be given a deadline for doing so.  Scoring would be done, as now, by the Joint Tax Committee and the Congressional Budget Office. The resulting bill would be introduced to both houses and considered under rules that would limit amendments and time for debate and lead to an up-or-down vote. The enacted bill would be subject to presidential veto, though a consensus bill is likelier to be greeted with relief than a veto pen.

Many believe that Congress is too divided to make important decisions. We think just the opposite—that important and urgent national needs like transportation funding are the very things that will bring Congress together. In recent months it has happened on trade and to keep doctors providing Medicare.  Action to preserve our nation’s infrastructure could be proof that Congress is not totally broken. It could restore some confidence that our much vaunted democracy can put politics aside and act in the public interest when the stakes are high.

As advocates of returning to effective budget decision-making, we are reluctant to propose one more ad hoc workaround. But general budget process reform will not happen quickly, and crumbling infrastructure is an emergency that demands immediate action. Let’s just do it.

Josh Gotbaum, a guest scholar in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, served as a senior official in the Office of Management and Budget, Treasury, and other federal agencies, and was CEO of the September 11th Fund. Alice M. Rivlin, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, served as Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve, was Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and was the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office.