Creating an Effective 113th Congress: Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
As we noted last week, the best approach to achieving conservative policy victories in Congress is to have conservative members on influential committees. That is why it is essential to get good members on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the 113th Congress. The current composite score for the Republican members of this committee from the Heritage Action scorecard is 66.58%, so there is certainly room for improvement. With spending on highways and transit more than $50b per year, conservative members will have a big impact; and even now, planning for the 2014 reauthorization is already underway.
Heritage Action has two primary objectives. Control spending so that funds are not imprudently diverted away from necessary projects and give states maximum flexibility to set their own transportation priorities.
As Heritage Action has stated before, when you’re $16 trillion in debt “not spending what you don’t have sounds like a fairly uncontroversial policy objective.” It should come as no surprise that conservatives are tired of this fiscal fiasco. Lawmakers need to rein in the spending, and we suggest lawmakers consider the following options.
First, funding for federal highway and transit programs should have a set parameter so that taxpayers do not end up on the hook for excessive spending. Fortunately, a convenient parameter exists: the revenue gained through the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). That is why last May, Heritage Action did a key vote on the Broun Motion to Instruct Conferees, which would insist that funding for Federal highway and transit programs were limited to levels that can be supported by the HTF’s revenues, without transfers from the general fund of the Treasury of other sources.
The nature of the current spending problem is twofold. First, spending is simply too high, well above what the HTF collects, and “according to the Congressional Budget Office, the trust fund will run out of money in 2013, meaning spending is clearly outpacing revenues.”
Where will the rest of the money come from? It would come from the general fund, which is precisely what conservatives want to prevent.
The HTF brings in funds by means of the federal gas tax. This tax should be not be increased, as some lawmakers are quietly discussing. However, since this would be the source of funding for transportation infrastructure projects, it makes the need to rein in spending on superfluous, wasteful transit programs all the more necessary. Moreover, the HTF “is in an unhealthy state due to declining gas tax revenues, caused in part by changes in motorist habits, gas prices, and increasingly fuel-efficient car,” and the problem is exacerbated by “the diversion of up to 35 percent of funds to non-general-purpose road projects.” The most “egregious recipients” of the funds are transit programs that “commit state taxpayers to paying operating subsidies for years to come that they cannot afford.”
While a few positive changes were implemented with the most recent reauthorization, Heritage explains the fundamental problem with transportation policy as it currently stands:
“The federal government’s overreach into transportation program and funding decisions has increased, fueled by the misguided premise that Washington must have a say in how every transportation dollar is spent. With this has come more regulation—as well as funds being spent on programs that have little to do with general purpose roads. Some of the reforms in this bill that give states more flexibility over their money and reduce the burden of red tape are positive steps toward reversing those trends.”
In addition, Heritage Action also suggests that royalties from energy exploration not be used to fund transportation projects. Rather, as Heritage Action CEO, Mike Needham said:
“We’re asking questions that people haven’t been asking in 30 years… With the highway bill and many other things, we’re trying to say, ‘What is the appropriate role of the federal government?’ … The entities that should be funding highways are the states.”
Real reform, which turns back highway and transit programs back to the states, is the goal. Although that may seem like an ambitious goal, 30 Republican Senators supported that very approach in March. The addition of a few more conservatives on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could very well help turn the tide.
Finally, Amtrak’s poor performance is a testament to why government should not be in the business of taking taxpayer money to fund its preferred means of transportation. What they don’t want you to know is that “Amtrak accounts for less than one half of 1 percent of all interstate passenger travel.” Much of what Amtrak does is not profitable, and since the collapse of President Obama’s High Speed Rail in March 2011, Amtrak has suggested they take over the initiative to the tune of $117 billion.
That was an awful idea. As Heritage’s Ronald Utt said, “Amtrak requir[es] at least $1.6 billion per year just to provide the current level of mediocre and underutilized service.” The addition of another $117 billion project would just make the Amtrak problem worse.
Looking forward, it’s clear that conservative lawmakers must base their decisions on conservative principles, which obliges them to control spending and return the power to the states. While some liberals claim we have an infrastructure crisis, what we really have is a choice between two distinct notions of government. Transportation and infrastructure policy is an important lens through which the merits of conservative versus liberal thought are made very clear.
Let’s end with this food for thought, also from Ronald Utt:
“The real crisis is not one of infrastructure per se, but of the parts that are government-owned and operated with a degree of mismanagement familiar to the millions of Russians and East Europeans who decided to junk such a system in the late 1980s. As such, our infrastructure crisis is really a crisis of monopoly socialism.
If placed on the Transportation and Infrastructure committee, committed conservatives could reverse the “crisis of monopoly socialism.” Our country deserves nothing less.