Authorization bill may be stalled for some time

Posted on August 10, 2010 by Cliff Henke

[IMAGE]BTR-1.jpg[/IMAGE]In a previous column, I wrote that the political gridlock at the federal level felt like 1982. As events have unfolded, however, it feels more like a combination of the worst aspects of 1938, 1982 and 1994, which does not bode well for an authorization bill to be delivered any time soon.

Thirty years ago, when it took a lame-duck session of Congress to pass a surface transportation reauthorization, it was called a "jobs bill." It was passed only after the deep policy differences between Congress and a new president, heightened in a stalling economic recovery, were sufficiently resolved. Then, the nickel-per-gallon gas tax that funded the spending increase was sold as a "user fee" to placate anti-tax conservatives in President Reagan's political base. Reagan knew he needed to at least appear as though he was responding to an economic situation — and his poll numbers — that were not getting better fast enough.

This time, the political situation is more like 1938 and 1994, when the president's fiscal policies were being opposed by those who said less spending and a lowered deficit would help get the country out of an economic hole. In the mid 1930s, the big programs of Franklin Roosevelt's administration worked only to a point, and the critics got their way. Most economists now believe that the focus on the deficit caused a second "dip," until World War II spending corrected it. Both the current president's chair of his Council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer, and the head of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, are aware of this, since they are experts on the causes of the Great Depression.

There is also a political disconnect at the state and local level. While virtually all state constitutions mandate a balanced budget every year, forcing officials to tax or cut spending in the face of a flattening economic recovery, some want to cut the infrastructure spending that voters in a growing number of states and localities have enacted. Virtually all such spending has been paid for with bonds or previously enacted tax earmarks. Study after study (most of them collected at the Center for Transportation Excellence's and APTA's Websites, both of which can be found at www.apta.com) shows that public transportation investments are some of the best for both short-term economic stimulus and long-term growth.

Economic train wreck

This economic train wreck may be avoided if business leaders, transit riders, local elected officials and others rise up and demand that politicians inside the Beltway stop the nonsense and enact the sensible federal transportation law that is long overdue. APTA has two such means to pressure Congress and the president: its "Tell Our Story Campaign" and a social media campaign for business members to be rolled out this month.

There is a famous story about Roosevelt's grassroots supporters in the 1930s. They were growing frustrated with parts of his recovery agenda being stalled by opponents in Congress. Then, like now, there were opponents in both parties. "You need to make them and me do it," he said to these activists. Then, like now, all who support such a program have an opportunity, a responsibility and an urgency to do it again.

Cliff Henke, a contributing editor to METRO, is senior analyst at PB. His views herein are solely his own.


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