Armageddon Now?

When a Journal of Commerce reporter went to a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week on the pressing issue of what needs to be done to improve the United States’ exporting capabilities, he came back empty-handed. The hearing on what many U.S. shippers believe are their most pressing concerns was canceled in the uproar following the passage of health care legislation into law, as Republicans responded with an arcane parliamentary maneuver that halted work in Congress after 2 p.m.

First, let’s get past the obvious wisecracks about whether the country is better off with Congress not working.

In fact, the problems facing exporters and the gap between the country’s shipping aspirations and economic reality are pressing matters for a large swath of the U.S. economy. Those concerns for American business do not go away after 2 p.m., and nothing involving the health care debate, whether it was over the legislation or what is now law, diminishes the important issues shippers are asking the government to address.

The hearing on exports was just a single, barely noticed measure thrown aside in the political fracas playing out in Washington and around the country over the past couple of weeks. But for anyone with a stake in transportation, it raises a troubling question of whether the overheated rhetoric flying around over health care will affect legislative dynamics on Capitol Hill this year and whether the political atmosphere now is so toxic that the very important give-and-take of the legislative political process will suffer.

More pointedly, will Democrats, having perhaps passed into something of a new political world with the passage of the health care measure, now be emboldened to move forward with other measures? And will Republicans, locked down by rhetoric over what the House minority leader called “Armageddon,” simply stamp their feet, fold their arms, refuse to take part and wait for the next election, as at least one elected official has promised?

No one expects both sides to simply shake hands and move on. But, as one longtime Washington political operative told us plainly last week, “Better legislation and public policy come from the parties engaging one another.”

And that’s not just a truism for a high school civics class: For the transportation world, the potential for deep, unbending rancor has important consequences that could become clear very soon.

Important issues such as the potential for economic regulation of harbor trucking and measures tied to the once thoroughly non-partisan surface transportation reauthorization bill seem to be moving through an increasingly partisan prism. President Obama’s use of recess appointments to fill key trade and labor posts signal the administration isn’t willing to essentially not govern because members of Congress simply want to stop any action by the executive branch.

One transportation expert in Washington says the impact of such a partisan divide on the business world could be even greater. Does cap-and-trade, seemingly thrown aside as key Republican and Democratic senators worked up a sensible alternative, have new life?

Political rhetoric seems to have gotten out of hand in recent weeks. The transportation community should hope both parties remain engaged with each other in the political process, because the alternative is so much worse.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,

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