Earl Blumenauer has a major reason why he thinks his plan to avoid a transportation funding collapse could work. His plan, he says hopefully, “allows politicians to exercise no leadership,” a condition that has otherwise stood immovably before any achievement in this Congress.
“The issue is just get out of the way,” explains the 10-term Portland congressman, although even that requirement has been more than enough to stop any progress in the past year and a half.
This summer, the federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, the major source of federal funding for roads, bridges and other infrastructure, runs out of money. This will be a considerable blow to construction projects, especially during the summer construction season – earlier this month Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the feds would shortly begin reducing payments to states – as well as weakening both the economy and Americans’ chances of successfully getting anywhere.
The fund is underwritten by the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993. Over that time, gas tax revenues have been reduced by an increase in miles per gallon and the growth of hybrid and electric cars, while the cost of building a bridge that can keep your Toyota from falling into a river has increased. With the current numbers, says Blumenauer, federal support for infrastructure would drop by 30 percent over the next decade.
His proposal to deal with the issue, at least for the foreseeable future, is simple: Raise the gas tax. The problem here is the number of Republicans in Congress who are sworn not to raise taxes – and the number of Democrats who don’t want to be seen raising taxes – even if Genghis Khan were marching on Pittsburgh.
A few other voices have suggested the idea, notably two senators, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who proposed it last month. The idea was immediately dismissed by Orrin Hatch, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who declared, “You’re not going to get anywhere with it. Many feel that it’s a logical thing to do since it’s the users that are paying for the roads, but thus far I don’t think you’d have that support for it.”
Because, how far is logic going to get you in Congress?
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Finance Committee chairman, proposed a tax increase on heavy trucks just to get through the summer construction period, an idea alive for about two days before GOP opposition made Wyden drop it. With Congress’s return from its July 4 recess this week, it now has only few weeks until its August recess and the trust fund running dry. This week, the House passed a measure scraping up $10 billion from various places that can’t be called taxes to try to get through the summer.
Yet Blumenauer points out that rather than see construction take a major hit, interest groups representing the people who would pay the increased tax – the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, trucking organizations, the American Automobile Association – are willing to support it.
This is what he means by Congress just needing to get out of the way.
He even has an idea how it might work.
First, Congress will – because it has to – pass something limited for a short-term fix. The approach will be, he says, “Close your eyes, hold your nose, and stop the summer shutdown.”
Then, for a longer-term solution, look to what seems like the only time Congress gets anything done: the lame-duck session after the November election. With no election for another two years, with no Tea Party primaries facing Republicans for a year and a half, with about 10 percent of members about to leave Congress, something could actually happen.
But if nothing could happen before the lame-duck session, nothing is likely to happen afterwards in the new Congress, with a Republican House, a Democratic White House and a more closely divided Senate, whether Democratic or Republican. Besides, the 2016 presidential campaign begins almost immediately.
But in the lame-duck session, things will have to happen quickly, and measures will be attached to other measures. “If it were debated fully, as stand-alone legislation, it wouldn’t go,” says Blumenauer. “But it will.”
And if this isn’t exactly the textbook version of how legislation works, says Blumenauer, “I’ll rise above principle.”
It’s hard to say whether this is a bleak view, because it gives up on any regular congressional process, or a hopeful one, because it insists that something can still somehow happen.
“There is no good alternative,” says Blumenauer, who after all his time in Congress still believes that can be a compelling argument.
Besides, his plan doesn’t require anybody to exercise leadership.