Friday, January 20, 2012

Playing politics with highways

We’ve heard promises of a new surface transportation bill for years, but lawmakers have kicked the can down the road a number of times. And now, with this being an election year, we can expect a healthy dose of party politics in debates over roads, bridges and transportation jobs.

As in generations past, Republicans and Democrats still seem to agree that transportation is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, but the two parties are worlds apart on issues of policy and funding.

The rift has widened in the past few years even with the two sides saying the same things sometimes about highway safety, jobs, public transportation and good roads. In recent months – and we’ll see this throughout 2012 – the election will elevate the rhetoric to the point that the torrent could seem impassable.

Many hot-button issues are spurring the debate. One that comes to mind is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives favoring new oil and gas drilling to help supplement the transportation bill. House Democrats are saying “no way” to the drilling proposal and are hoping to win favor by offering “made in America” provisions for transportation raw materials. In return, the Republicans say the current “buy American” rules are good enough.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee applauded themselves for drafting a bipartisan transportation bill last fall, and to some degree deserve a pat on the back for that. But their jurisdiction and the provisions they drafted have led to somewhat status quo language without breaking much in the way of new territory. The EPW Committee seems content to let other committees draft the fire starters.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has tacked on a few fire-starter provisions in its offering to the bill. And once other committees add their two cents, lawmakers could very well be scrambling for their pokers so they can stoke the coals some more.

That’s the way the system works, and it seems to heat up even more during election season.

House and Senate leaders say they’re close to finishing their respective bills. But the closer they seem to get, the more election-year politicking we’re likely to see.

On the upside, transportation is on the tips of their tongues, and somewhere down the line the kicked can will come to rest. Eventually, whether before or after the election, lawmakers will find at least some common ground for transportation and we’ll have a new bill.