Infrastructure Party Poopers

Q: Can you help me understand what’s going on in Washington these days?

President Obama has proposed extending funding for transportation infrastructure repair and improvements, and the Republicans seem to be against it, or at least they’re making noises that way.

I don’t follow this at all. Republicans are supposed to be pro-business, aren’t they? I mean, that’s what they always say, and that’s how they’re portrayed in the news media. It’s also why I usually vote Republican.

I can’t think of anything more pro-business than keeping the highways, the rails, the seaports and the airports in good shape, and building them up. Business depends on transportation; the less well our transportation system functions, the more problems business has and the higher the costs are to move goods and people.

Seems to me this is something the Republicans ought to be for big-time. Why aren’t they?

A: There seem to be two factors in play here.

The first is the abrupt emergence of this very right-wing adjunct of the Republican Party known as the Tea Party. The idea underlying the Tea Party philosophy (such as it is; the so-called Tea Party is spread all over the political map, and seems to have no central focus) is that the federal government is far too much involved in day-to-day American life, and they want it backed off, way off.

So other than national defense, the Tea Party adherents seem almost reflexively against any increases in or even continuation of federal domestic spending or revenue-gathering. I’ve even heard talk of not renewing the federal excise tax on motor fuel, which, because it funds federal spending on highways, would bring that to a screeching halt.

Whether you agree or disagree with the overall Tea Party stance, that may seem excessive to those in (or dependent on) the transportation industry. And I think even the most ardent Tea Party enthusiasts would so acknowledge, if the issue were taken in isolation.

The problem is, politically it isn’t — taken in isolation, that is. The Tea Party legislators have a very broad-brush approach; when any domestic spending issue comes up, their immediate reaction is chop, chop. They seem to figure cut now, and cut and cut again, check out the results and do any fine-tuning later — postulating, of course, that their drastic cuts leave a “later” from which recovery is even possible.

A second factor is an even uglier reality of Washington politics. When President Obama took office in 2009, a number of Republican leaders said publicly that their primary goal for the next four years would be to make his presidency a failure. And the leadership in Congress, in particular, seems to have hewed to this priority.

Thus, it doesn’t matter much what it is; the moment the president proposes anything, it’s opposed as a matter of policy by Republican legislators. And that seems to be so whether the proposal otherwise furthers stated GOP platforms or (as, admittedly, is more often the case; Obama’s a Democrat, after all) runs counter to them.

It’s far from the first time in U.S. history that there’s been this kind of party-based stalemate. Republicans and Democrats have always had sharply divergent views of our nation’s future and the proper way of getting there. The hot air emanating from our nation’s capital has always been heavily laden with partisan rhetoric, with both sides focusing strongly on name-calling and the like.

Historically, though, it hasn’t stalled the business of the country nearly so much as it seems to be doing now. President Obama was elected in large part by touting his ability at consensus-building, and has stuck firmly by that as his modus operandi. But he’s trying to make compromises with an opposition openly disdainful of compromise as a solution.

And, having won through on a steadily increasing number of disputes, congressional Republicans have become emboldened. These days they’ll accede to nothing without concessions, and ever larger ones, and the White House and congressional Democrats seem incapable of uniting and drawing lines in the sand.

I expect some reauthorization of transportation infrastructure spending will ultimately be approved, but only after the Republicans have exacted another pound of flesh. Whichever party you prefer personally, I think the current D.C. practice of treating everything as subject to such horse-trading — including matters central to U.S. economic progress, even survival — can’t be to your taste.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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