WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday described his $50 billion transportation stimulus as an “advance” on a much larger six-year surface transportation bill currently being shepherded through the House by Transportation Chairman Jim Oberstar.
Oberstar welcomed the president’s proposal as a step in the right direction en route to the larger bill that represents the focal point of his agenda — a $450 billion to $500 billion, six-year deal that would represent a massive investment in roads and bridges and mass transit while creating or guaranteeing an estimated six million actually-documentable jobs.
Left unsaid: While they’re agreed on what the bill should do, the president and Oberstar remain miles apart how it ought to get done. Not on quibbly fringe bits either, but on foundational issues like how large it should be and how it should be funded.
For all of 2009 and mo.st of this year, the White House had been pushing an 18 month reauthorization, which Oberstar has said is too short to make a difference. His logic: Agencies would have the money to begin multi-year projects, but that short timeframe wouldn’t provide assurances that the federal dollars they’d need to complete the job would be around when those projects wrap up.
Obama’s softened language Friday pledging his commitment to a six-year reauthorization came as welcome news to Oberstar, who has been agitating for a long-term bill since Obama took office.
“President Obama demonstrated that he is serious about making transportation a top priority in his administration,” Oberstar said. “He is the first president in decades to tackle this issue head on.”
But these recent developments have also raised questions among those in the House close to the negotiations, especially as opposition has mounted to the president’s proposal from Republicans and even some Democrats who have previously held the party line on votes like this.
Top of that list of questions: Would this second stimulus — and the political headache that goes along with it — even be necessary if the White House had just been willing to do a long-term transportation bill (which that money could have been included in) in the first place?
A ‘step in the right direction’
The divide between the House and the White House on long-term transportation funding has been scaldingly contentious at times over the last two years. It openly chafes at Oberstar that the White House in early 2009 indicated they planned to hold off on a full bill until the end of 2010 or start of 2011.
“Inertia becomes the enemy of progress,” Oberstar warned his Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in July, 2009.
“And if they don’t understand that at the White House, then I suggest that those highfalutin economists get out of their chauffeured limousines and get on the street and drive like the rest of America and choke in the congestion that is stifling America’s economy and choking our cities. We are ready to move.”
So far, legislative gridlock has given the president his wish – it is a year and a half now since this issue first came up. Now however, for the first time the president and the chairman seem to on the same page, or at least reading out of the same book.
“On infrastructure, we’ve got a highway bill that traditionally is done every six years,” Obama said, outlining his plan. “And what we’re saying is let’s ramp up what we’re doing, let’s beef it up a little bit — because we’ve got this infrastructure all across the country that everybody from governors to mayors to economists to engineers of all political stripes have said is holding us back in terms of our long-term competitiveness – let’s get started now rebuilding America.”
The earliest it looks like that the overall bill could come up is in the lame duck session — and that’s a small window of time – but Oberstar and administration officials sounded a confident tone.
“I am certain,” said Oberstar, “that we will be able to make real progress on legislation to put Americans to work fixing our roads and bridges before the end of this year.”
“We plan to work with leaders in the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis to ensure that a multiyear transportation bill can be paid for and does not add to the deficit,” agreed Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair, though she didn’t put a timetable on the bill.
There is pressure to get going on the measure before the clock strikes 2011.
After that point, there will almost certainly be a smaller Democratic majority to work with. If losses are bad enough and Democrats lose the House, Oberstar loses his chairmanship and with it his spot as architect of the nation’s transportation future.
Hindsight is 20/20 — and GOP says it shows an opportunity missed
Republicans say Democrats may have already missed their window to pass a bill this year — and prospects for Obama’s transportation stimulus don’t look that good either.
Rep. John Mica, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee (who would likely succeed Oberstar as chairman if the GOP takes the House), said last week that the surface transportation bill is dead this session.
The surface transportation bill has become a tricky lift — it would be paid for partially with a phased-in hike in the gas tax, which for years has been considered an apolitical user fee but now has turned into something of a giant red flag in a Congress generally unwilling to consider increasing taxes of any kind.
And because the Highway Trust Fund that pays for many of these projects has been running deficits and is barred by rule from deficit spending (it was bailed out twice in the last few years), a surface transportation bill without a gas tax hike or other similar funding mechanism isn’t really a bill at all.
Obama’s preference is to move first with his $50 billion transportation stimulus, but prospects for that seem tenuous. That’s because some allies who voted for the first stimulus bill, like Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, have said they’ll oppose this second stimulus.
Mica outlined GOP opposition to the plan by saying that the Obama administration doesn’t need more money because has been too slow to spend money it already has control over.
“While proposing to spend more on infrastructure in another stimulus effort may sound like the Administration is doing something about jobs, in fact only 32 percent of the infrastructure funding approved 18 months ago in the first stimulus has been spent,” Mica said. “Projects continue to be bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape.”
So mark that one down as unlikely, Mica says, right next to the surface transportation bill that he thinks the White House has stalled to death.
“I don’t know what planet these people have been living on for the last 18 months,” Mica said. “They hijacked the $862 billion so-called stimulus, leaving less than seven percent in the bill for infrastructure, and they failed to ensure that even this small percentage of funds would be spent expeditiously.
“Then the administration undermined their Democrat House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman and killed any chance for a six-year transportation reauthorization bill.”