Infrastructure and Investment

Infrastructure and Investment

The echo chamber of infrastructure advocacy debate opened up a bit last month, and it’s important that the businesses in the transportation and trade world pay attention.

A Washington event billed as a debate on infrastructure funding gave the closed community of transport advocates a view of the reasoning behind the anti-spending drive in Congress and a hint of the bare-rare politics too easily ignored in the tight circles of transportation.

Generally, when you get port officials, trucking executives and a few sympathetic lawmakers together to talk infrastructure, the debate comes down to a question of whether there should be more spending on roads and bridges or much more spending. And there will be general agreement the money will come from sources to be named later. (Or, as the late Sen. Russell Long famously put it, “Don’t tax him, don’t tax me, tax that man behind the tree.”)

That cozy agreement is out of step with political reality, however, and the National Journal event last month provided a welcome window on the political hurdles that advocates face.

Those hurdles start — and some believe end — with Grover Norquist. The president of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist is the author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge signed by lawmakers across the country as a bulwark against anything that hints of a tax increase.

Here is what he has to say about roads and bridges:

“Let’s drop the word infrastructure,” he said. “Infrastructure is French for, ‘We’re not building roads, we’re going to build museums, we’re going to give the money for the pensions of the unionized workers.’ If you mean roads and bridges, say roads and bridges. Write the laws that say roads and bridges so it doesn’t get siphoned off to subway systems and imaginary high-speed rail.”

Highway spending, he said at the event, goes to “cronies” in industry and the very financial foundation of the country’s roads should be ripped up.

“I’m in favor, over time, of phasing out most if not all the federal gasoline tax and allowing states to take those resources and spend them,” he said. “You have a hard time telling people to give us money and we’ll spend it on roads, when they see the Three-Card Monte guy doing federal money, state money, Davis-Bacon, siphoning off to subways and to bike paths … Until you can turn all those cards up, and say this is what we’re spending on roads, this is what we’re spending on subway systems in states you’ll never visit.”

That’s a radical vision that, for whatever principled statements he includes about wasted money on pet projects, rejects the country’s long-standing principles supporting interstate commerce and shared national purpose. It also seems very deeply anti-business, and Norquist addresses that point in throwing a barb at the nation’s largest business group, which supports greater infrastructure spending.

“I know the Chamber of Commerce, which is not a taxpayer group, has a lot of people who work for it who make a living off of certain government programs. They represent the entire business community, including the guys with government contracts.
“They’re not a touchstone for where the modern taxpayer movement or the American taxpayers are on this issue,” he said.

Business should be working to ensure he’s wrong about that.

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,