This Congress has been criticized for not passing many laws -- and praised for that in some quarters. And it's true that in quantitative terms its productivity has been low.
A major case in point is transportation. Neither the Democratic-majority Senate nor the Republican-controlled House has passed a reauthorization of what was once known as the highway bill, which used to be done every five or six years.
This failure can be ascribed in part to partisan warfare and to intra-party differences. But it's also due to the obsolescence of the federal funding scheme used since the Interstate Highway System was first authorized in 1956.
That was a successful piece of bipartisan legislation. President Dwight Eisenhower, with memories of leading a convoy across America's primitive roads in 1919, believed the nation needed a system of superhighways to transport troops and materiel in case of foreign attack.
Several states had built limited-access toll roads, but there was an obvious need for coordination and for (disguised) subsidies for less affluent states. So a federal gas tax, a kind of user fee, would finance 90 percent of the cost of interstate highways, with states paying the other 10 percent.
For a long time the law worked as planned. Most of the interstate network was in place by the early 1970s. The last bit, the breathtaking Glenwood Canyon stretch of I-70 in Colorado, was opened in 1992.
In subsequent highway bills Congress added bells and whistles -- funding for mass transit, for bike paths, authorization of a national 55 mile per hour speed limit. Committee chairmen built support for the bill by allowing members to earmark funds for projects in their states and districts.
Now this politically congenial system is broken. One reason is that gas tax receipts are flat-lining or declining. Higher gasoline mileage requirements -- something Congress has also blessed -- are responsible.
The federal government and most states tax gas at a per-gallon rate. So higher gas mileage means less money for the Highway Trust Fund. And in a time of recession and sluggish growth, people have been driving less.
In the last decade, Congress has topped off the trust fund with general revenues. But in times of sequestration it has predictably been unable to agree on doing more, and raising the federal gas tax has been a nonstarter.
Also hindering agreement has been the abolition of earmarks -- the glue that held together the bipartisan coalitions for past transportation bills. As with the gas tax and mileage requirements, so too with earmark abolition, one politically attractive policy has undercut another.
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