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Rick Nolan and the sad ballad of the House Transportation Committee

It used to be one of the surest bets for members of Congress who wanted to get things done. But eight years without major legislation have tarnished the committee’s reputation.

Congress has passed 33 temporary highway funding extensions over the past eight years.
Courtesy of MnDOT

WASHINGTON — He should be getting ready to enjoy his time at home in Brainerd in August, but Rep. Rick Nolan — Minnesota’s lone voice on the House Transportation Committee — is frustrated.

Leading up to the past weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell abruptly announced an ambitious plan. He would lead the Senate in passing a bipartisan transportation funding bill — a real, six-year plan for funding the nation’s highway and infrastructure needs, not a stopgap. The bill, written by both Democrats and Republicans, would provide over $300 billion in transportation funding over the next six years.

There was a problem though — and that problem was the House, which leaves for summer recess on Friday. Even if the Senate passed McConnell’s plan — which it hasn’t — House members would have a scant few days to review the details. Given the unrealistic timeline for considering such a major piece of legislation, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pronounced fellow-Republican McConnell’s plan dead-on-arrival. Instead, House members of both parties say the Senate should pass a short-term bill — highway funds run out at the end of July — and work on a long-term fix in the fall.

Barring an unlikely turn of events, then, the federal government will continue to support the nation’s infrastructure as it has for the past eight years — with a stopgap funding measure that merely extends current federal policy. This would be the 34th time in a row.

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Given that dismal record, it’s understandable why Nolan is discouraged by the latest twist in federal funding of the nation’s infrastructure. “I have no interest whatsoever as a member of the Transportation Highway Subcommittee in passing a six-year deal without any input from members of the House,” Nolan says. “It’s wholly, 100% unacceptable…now I find myself arguing for something I’ve been deploring, which is the short term extensions.”

Lost its luster

It’s a far cry from the days of Nolan’s predecessor from the Eighth District, Rep. Jim Oberstar. The 36-year congressman was known as a titan of transportation policy — when he died last year, former 6th District Congressman Vin Weber called him “the leading infrastructure expert of our time.”

Oberstar was a member of — and, for four years, presided over — a Transportation Committee that made things happen. While serving as chair from 2007 to 2011, Oberstar secured billions of dollars in transportation and infrastructure funding when Congress passed its massive stimulus bill in 2009. In 2007, Oberstar pushed through a $250 million emergency package days after the I-35W bridge collapsed. He also thoroughly availed himself earmarks — the riders lawmakers attach to bills to fund specific projects — bringing $22 million in federal funding back to Minnesota in his last term alone.

It wasn’t just Oberstar who used the power of the committee to shape infrastructure policy and bring home bacon for his district. Members and past chairs alike had done so for decades, which is why the Transportation Committee was considered as plum an assignment as there was on Capitol Hill.

1st District Rep. Tim Walz used to be on the Transportation Committee, but left at the end of the last Congress. He told MinnPost in March that the committee doesn’t work the way it used to. “Quite honestly, that committee has lost its luster,” Walz said. “Kicking the can has really soured a lot of people.”

What changed?

How did Congress, and the once-great Transportation Committee, become unable to perform one of its most central duties? Lawmakers and observers point to two factors: the banning of earmarks, and the rise of a powerful anti-tax faction within the Republican Party.

Upon taking the House majority in 2011, GOP leadership moved to ban earmarks — or pork, as they’re commonly called — in the name of good governance and fiscal responsibility. They pointed to prolific procurers like Oberstar and wasteful projects like Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere in making the case that they caused more harm than good.

But critics of the ban argue that earmarks accounted for a drop in the federal spending bucket, and that the ban has deprived lawmakers a critical tool for moving legislation through Congress. It helps explain why the Transportation Committee has lost so much clout: few committees were as reliant on earmarks. It used to be common for highway bills to be loaded with pork — concessions for corralling votes on massive, complicated pieces of legislation. Longtime Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin said last year that the earmark ban has “created a situation where you can’t get transportation bills passed.”

But beyond the spending angle, there’s also a funding problem — namely, the stalling of the federal tax on gasoline. For nearly 60 years, Washington used the fuel tax to support the Highway Trust Fund, a key way of paying for the nation’s Interstate Highways. For decades, the tax enjoyed generally bipartisan support, with periodic increases in the rate. But since 1994 — the year of Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution — the tax has not gone up.

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According to a Pro Publica report on the tax, it provides only $34 billion of the Highway Trust Fund’s $50 billion, and for years, the U.S. Treasury has been making up the difference. Democrats blame the effectiveness of a group of GOP lawmakers, who signed pledges to not raise taxes, in stalling the gas tax. Today, however, those anti-gas-tax views are mainstream, and top GOP leaders such as Speaker John Boehner and House Ways and Means Chair Paul Ryan oppose the tax. Serious efforts to raise it have not gained traction.

As Nolan sees it, a stridently anti-tax conservative faction is holding GOP leadership hostage, and making long-term compromise impossible. “I have every confidence that if the Transportation Committee were allowed by Republican leadership to write a bill, we could write a good bill,” he says. “Leadership refuses to allow that to happen because tea partiers threatened to take away Boehner’s speakership.”

It’s a sorry state of affairs for the Transportation Committee, according to Nolan. It used to be “the most highly sought-after committee assignment — and now it might be the committee where members are the most frustrated…The bridges are falling down, trains are coming off the tracks.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the length of Rep. Jim Obertsar’s tenure in Congress. He served for 36 years.