14 Dec

Transportation package: a road to Congress actually doing something

On the one hand, the most significant achievement by Congress this year is based on imaginary numbers, self-delusion and financial calculations that most of the congressmen who voted for it didn’t believe.

On the other hand, Peter DeFazio doesn’t care.

After all, to pass anything through this Congress, you have to make a few compromises.

An approximately $300 billion, five-year transportation package – a bit delayed, which fits both this Congress and the American transportation system – has actually gone through Congress and been signed, just like the legislative process is supposed to work.

You might almost think this was an encouraging sign for the gigantic federal funding bill that was supposed to pass by this weekend (and didn’t) and hopefully will pass this week, to keep the federal government from holding a going-out-of-business sale.

(Tactical nuclear weapons, two-for-one.)

The transportation package, after all, was overwhelmingly passed by big bipartisan majorities in both houses, and added $80 billion in general fund spending to the revenue from the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 – back when government actually used arithmetic.

“It’s probably one of the very few things that will be a real benefit to the American people that this Congress will do over a two-year period,” said the Springfield congressman, ranking minority member of the transportation committee and Democratic point man on the issue. “I’m surprised how good the policy parts are.”

In fact, he conceded, “I was very wrong when I went around telling people that the only bipartisan thing left in Washington was my small brewers’ caucus.”

Although the year has made DeFazio the central D.C. figure for Oregon’s key priorities: transportation and beer.

In addition to a bill spending some more money on transportation over the next five years, DeFazio points to some elements also of particular interest in Oregon, such as making it easier to find out where a train is going and what it’s carrying. The answer won’t always be something toxic or explosive, but as Oregon has learned, sometimes it will be.

Still, with a flat Republican rejection of raising the gas tax – although higher gas mileage and the increasing role of hybrid and electric cars are driving its value down – the additional funding needed to be provided somehow. It was covered by what DeFazio, in technical congressional financial language, calls “phony baloney funding.”

Or in other words, “They made up a bunch of funny stuff.”

For example, he points out, the bill counts on additional revenue from private collection of tax debts owed the government – although, he notes, it’s been tried twice before, and ended up losing money. The bill expects billions from selling oil from the federal strategic reserve at $90 a barrel – although the week Congress voted on this, the barrel price was closer to $40.

Maybe the federal oil will all be high-test.

So, despite all protestations, the extra spending is likely to increase the deficit – which doesn’t bother DeFazio at all.

“We should be borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure,” he argues, “because of historically low interest rates and the needs of the system.”

Considering the state of our roads and the condition of our bridges, transportation needed to be a priority even before a week when Northwest roads turned into a giant sinkhole.

And after an extended delay, the transportation package turned into a real opportunity for Congress to achieve something – even, DeFazio marvels, with actual legislative procedure and 97 votes on amendments. The opportunity emerged, he notes, since “The Republicans needed Democratic votes because they have some ultra right-wing types who don’t believe in a federal role in transportation.”

So Democratic House members, despite having their worst numbers since the 1920s, were in a bargaining position. A reliance on Democratic votes helped drive the revolt against former Speaker John Boehner, but it seems to be the only way this House functions at all.

And since nobody expects new Speaker Paul Ryan to produce many Republican votes to keep the federal government from closing down, Democrats are in the same position on the omnibus spending bill. Since both sides are holding firm, this could delay progress even more.

Still, the passage of a five-year transportation package is a sign that sometimes the process can work, and maybe it will work again this year. Of course, this being Congress, nobody is in a hurry.
Asked when he thinks Congress will produce a spending package to keep the government open, DeFazio says only, “Hopefully before Christmas Eve.”

Probably eased with a holiday serving of phony baloney.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/13/15.

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