Building Toward an Answer

Building Toward an Answer

Suddenly, infrastructure spending is catching fire as a national political issue.

In the middle of a high-stakes faceoff with congressional Republicans over possible spending cuts, tax loopholes and a debt ceiling hike, President Obama said he wanted to move quickly from deficit talks to funding an infrastructure bank that can invest in roads, bridges, ports and other facilities.

And the top House Republican on transportation issues, Florida’s. John Mica, found himself in a running battle with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as congressional Democrats, after he unveiled a “less is more” program that would cut transportation spending.

It was a remarkably swift change from the months of behind-the-scenes debates and subtle shifts in direction that fed diminished expectations for what infrastructure advocates call investment.

Obama mentioned the need to increase infrastructure spending — to help the economy grow in the long run while generating near-term jobs — in each of several mid-July press conferences, ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt limit and keep funding government operations.

“As part of a component of a deal (on the national debt), I think it’s very important for us to look at what are the steps we can take short term in order to put folks back to work,” Obama said on July 11. “We’ve got the potential to create an infrastructure bank that could put construction workers to work right now, rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our vital infrastructure all across the country.”

Obama said such transportation investments could have a double benefit of creating jobs now while boosting commerce in the long term. “Rebuilding roads and bridges and ports” and other facilities, he said, “would be good for the economy not just next year or the year after, but for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Industry groups contrast that vision with bills emerging from House and Senate transportation panels that offer no new funding mechanism such as a fuel tax hike.

Obama’s remarks also drew a cheer from the American Association of Port Authorities, which has fought to be included in past federal grants that mainly went to roads or railways. “Glad to see ports included as infrastructure!” the group said on its Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, Mica is fighting back against sharp criticism of his plan to limit most types of transportation spending to only what the Highway Trust Fund takes in over the next six years, or about $230 billion.

Although the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman said he could leverage more spending through greater state flexibility on how to spend the money, easier access to some constrained federal loan accounts and forcing the use of billions of dollars now bottled up in a harbor maintenance account, Democrats attacked.

Ranking T&I member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said the GOP’s notion of “doing more with less” means that “at the end of the day, you get less.” Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the top Democrat on the highways subcommittee, called it “fantasy financing.” Democratic senators released a state-by-state breakdown asserting how many jobs could be lost under the plan.

Mica said, “It is disappointing and sad that some Democrats have launched a personal and partisan attack on the Republican proposal for a six-year transportation reauthorization … Anyone who takes time to evaluate the proposals outlined will realize that they can ensure that even more transportation projects will move forward, the trust fund will be preserved, and significant job creation over a six-year period will result.”

However, he was also under fire from the chamber, a usually reliable backer of business-friendly Republicans that had spent heavily in the 2010 elections to help sweep a GOP majority into the House. The chamber backs budget-cutting in general, but Janet Kavinoky, the group’s executive director of transportation and infrastructure, said Mica’s plan is a job killer.

“It is clear the committee has been constrained by the House-passed budget, as the investment levels are unacceptable. Cuts will destroy — rather than support — existing jobs” and be “devastating to construction and related industries,” she said.

Mica’s toughly worded, three-page response to Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber’s president and CEO, expressed his “dismay with the direction the chamber has taken.”

The T&I chairman said the premier business lobby had evolved into “an organization whose primary purpose in the national infrastructure arena appears to be to lead the lobby for tax increases,” and that its reaction was “a potential setback to enacting a long-term transportation reauthorization.”

But the battles over big spending also are playing out in smaller measures. The House voted last week to pay for $1 billion in flood relief by stripping out stimulus funds for Amtrak rail projects. Although the bill was expected to die in the Senate, the action signaled that specific programs would come under pressure on Capitol Hill no matter how the questions on larger investment spending are resolved.

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