Carrots, Earmarks & Infrastructure

Will President Obama offer any carrots or does he just keep swinging a stick to pressure budget-cutting lawmakers for new transportation spending?

Business groups as well as unions back his theme of making big new infrastructure investments, but House Republicans oppose increased spending. Find some money from within the transportation budget, they say in effect. Don’t ask for more.

But for a Congress and administration that have made federally funded “earmarks” a bad word, what can he offer that members of Congress will want to bite into? How can he entice them to vote for another big-ticket spending program?

Podcast: Obama's Call for Investment in US Transport Infrastructure

In the old carrot-and-stick example, a farmer would attach a carrot ahead of a reluctant mule to urge it forward, while timely swats from the stick make sure it gets the message.

The president has been using the stick lots of times in recent weeks, clobbering opponents as he tries to rev up support for more project spending. He’s suggested they might trigger another phony crisis, but with real-world damage, before extending Highway Trust Fund programs. He’s implied Republicans are unwilling to invest enough in U.S. transportation networks, to put more people to work now and build infrastructure that helps commerce thrive for decades.

Used to be, something like the surface transportation bill could at some point become a pin cushion. Sharp operators on Capitol Hill would stick in project earmarks for specific states and congressional districts. The price tag would swell, but so would the vote total.

Past Congresses popularized terms like “log-rolling” to describe legislation in which members back each other’s pet projects to get the bigger bill passed, or “Christmas tree” to indicate a must-pass bill that lawmakers decorate with their favored items. Leaders could woo supporters with earmarks, or punish recalcitrants by leaving theirs out.

Nowadays, the Department of Transportation wants Congress to put money in its accounts, but then leave DOT officials to decide which of thousands of competing projects get the cash.

Where’s the upside of that for lawmakers, if they can no longer brag to hometown voters that they directly brought roads, bridges, port projects and jobs back from Washington? They cannot earmark funds, have few bragging rights and risk getting tagged as big spenders. Saying they voted for a broad jobs plan does not carry the same local punch.

Obama’s lecturing words last week triggered caustic responses from GOP transportation leaders,  who had been working on new transportation bills and wondering when the Obama team would engage. In weeks to come, the president may have to soothe hurt feelings, or he may choose to throw more elbows as the infrastructure issue heats up.

But even if he puts away the stick, that larger problem remains. In a no-earmarks era, in a budget-cutting cycle when more spending here means deeper cuts there, what could entice lawmakers to vote for more infrastructure spending?

Carrots, anyone?

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/jboydjoc

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