Politics, Reality

Even John Mica doesn’t believe in the transportation spending plan he released this month.

That was plainly evident as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released something that was billed as a bill but really was more of a policy statement, a road map to a place no one with a stake in the country’s economic future wants to go.

The Mica plan would cut transportation infrastructure spending some 30 percent below the levels of the last surface transportation legislation — that unwieldy bill derided six years ago for its nonsensical earmarks and blithe dismissal of the shipping world’s pressing needs.

It was plainly evident that the Florida Republican’s heart isn’t in his own plan from the hold-your-nose introduction he gave to the thing. It calls for $230 billion in spending, but he said it could be leveraged to get to $450 billion — presumably putting the larger number out there as the amount he believes is needed to get the country’s highways, ports and intermodal sites on some path toward repair.

But the country’s needs and political reality are moving on two entirely different tracks, and if Mica’s plan succeeded in doing anything, it was in calling attention to the real consequences of the political brinksmanship that overtook Washington this month as attempts at a grand compromise on the government debt ceiling and the federal budget crashed.

Mica said in his statement that the White House proposals, which would spend more than $500 billion on transportation and infrastructure over the next six years, “are not economically realistic.”

When he says “economically realistic,” however, what he means is politically realistic.

That’s because for business, spending in a smart and considered way is never simply an outlay for spending’s sake.

From trucking companies “refreshing” their fleets to ocean carriers buying bigger vessels, capital spending is investment in the future. And businesses have rightly called spending on roads, ports and intermodal connectors investment.

But it’s hard to see a brighter economic future in actions to, say, default on the United States’ debts or dismiss the infrastructure that opens up world markets to U.S. manufacturers and enables the flow of raw materials and goods to U.S. factories and consumers.

To the broader business community, the House GOP plan for transportation spending was sort of swept aside as the drama over the debt ceiling reached a crescendo. Business groups took on an important role in that very pitched partisan battle, and they need to play a bigger role if companies are going to get the investment in infrastructure the country needs.

The National Retail Federation, for instance, called Mica’s plan “a significant step in the right direction,” while noting “the transportation system has suffered from decades of underinvestment to the point that it has become inflexible and a drag on the economy.”

That kind of non-endorsement endorsement was fairly typical of the responses across private industry. Now, the NRF and others need to tell House GOP leaders that political reality should move in an entirely new direction.

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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