Dysfunctionally Yours

The congressional failure that led to the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration will not, just to be clear, particularly pinch any freight or even passenger transport touching the United States, at least for now. Not even business connected to Sidney, Mont., or Beckley, W.Va.

But the impasse that came as members of Congress went home and construction projects around the country halted says terrible things about the ability in Washington to set stable, sensible trade and transportation policies in general and to pass important, specific legislation to advance the country’s broader goals.

That includes measures such as the free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama and the surface transportation reauthorization plan that is supposed to set the U.S. transportation direction for coming years.

Those measures, all of them already delayed long past any reasonable time for consideration, look to be part of the collateral damage of the brinksmanship that seems to have raised partisan politics far beyond the realm of actual governance.

For now, the political impasse in Washington isn’t hitting the world of shipping and supply chains directly, but wait until next month.

The U.S. fuel tax is due for renewal at the end of September and the lesson from this summer’s battles is that anyone who thinks that renewal, extended so routinely it was almost invisible in previous years, will advance easily should take another look at the political landscape.

Republican officials told the Politico newspaper last week the fuel tax renewal is high on the radar screen of members looking for the next battle over government revenue and spending. Eliminating the — 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline — would mean drying up the Highway Trust Fund that supports investment in roads, bridges and ports, and so presumably means forgoing an interest in a national transportation network that supports the country’s international trade.

That may have seemed far-fetched in recent years, even as transportation measures limped through extensions. But the battles this summer that began with the failure to approve the three seemingly nonpartisan and sensible free trade agreements, climaxed with the debt ceiling debacle and ended with the FAA implosion, show how fully the political equations have changed in the capital.

“There is a toxic political atmosphere,” said Peter Gatti, executive director of the National Industrial Transportation League. “It’s beyond dysfunctional, and I am concerned that it will seriously impact the business of business.”

It’s dysfunctional because the battles that led to the FAA paralysis, for instance, had everything to do with bare-knuckle politics completely divorced from the issues seemingly under debate. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has a reasonable general criticism of the obscure Essential Air Service program, for instance. But the program has been around for more than three decades and Mica’s plan would eliminate the subsidy at specific airports in states with Democratic leaders in the Senate, leaving the principle behind the move as transparent as it comes in Washington.

The outcome is an appalling result, and one that business should take seriously.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.

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