Congress will take center stage for the next couple of weeks as the spotlight recedes from the presidential primary process. The opening act is a tragedy about a party drifting away from its small government roots. Instead of using yet another-trillion dollar annual deficit as a rallying cry to cut spending, the House and Senate actually proposed to continue big dollar transportation spending.
Last week, House Republican leaders attempted to make the case that their bill “fits squarely within conservative ideology.” As evidence, they noted the bills numerous programmatic reforms, additional state flexibility and provisions that would open more domestic energy production. And while the bill does indeed include some important reforms, its $260 billion price tag is hard to swallow for conservatives.
It is instructive to look back at what the 2011 House-passed budget said and did with regard to transportation spending. The budget plan, authored by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), observed, “Since 2008, funding for the Department of Transportation has grown by 24 percent – and that doesn’t count the stimulus spike, which nearly doubled transportation spending in one year.”
The Ryan Budget “anticipate[d] that Congress can keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent without additional general fund transfers or increases in the gasoline tax by consolidating dozens of separate highway programs that GAO has identified as duplicative.”
That is an excellent principle – solvency through reform, not revenue – and 235 House Republicans voted in favor of it last year. One way to spend those existing dollars more frugally is to streamline the approval process, increase state flexibility and reduce federal mandates. While most conservatives would prefer to see the entire system turned back to the states, few could argue with this “solvency through reform” approach as an interim step.
Unfortunately, the current transportation bill walks away from the core principle outlined last year by the Ryan budget; instead, the $260 billion proposal would lump additional funding on top of much needed reforms.