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Surviving Inside the Establishment

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Washington’s dysfunction is usually on full display for all the world to see. Rarely, though, is the world privy to WHY Washington is so dysfunctional – at least not honestly. Last week, an inside-Washington publication held a well-attended event on transportation that inadvertently illustrated the dysfunction that defines our government.

When trying to survive while surrounded by the Establishment, it is important to view everything with a healthy dose of skepticism. As it turns out, my skepticism was well founded.

Whereas the American people have come to see Washington as the problem, the guests and panelists at this event saw it as the solution. No one better exemplified the Washington-first mentality than Diarmuid O'Connell of Tesla Motors. Tesla, if you remember, received $465 million in stimulus funding (more on that later).

Mr. O’Connell spent much of his time advocating a massive hike in the federal gas tax under the guise of investing in infrastructure. Of course, that would make gas more expensive, which in turn makes electric cars relatively more attractive – which has been President Obama and the Left’s desire for some time.

As if to justify my skepticism, Mr. O’Connell said electric cars should not be brought into the very user-fee system he was touting as critical to infrastructure development because it would stunt the growth of his industry and undermine their artificial competitive advantage.

For those who thrive inside Washington – on the connections, access and proximity to power – this is just par for the course. They see the various levers in Washington as business opportunities to advance oneself and disadvantage one’s competitor…and all too often, lawmakers and agency heads are all too willing to play along and help distort the market.

Tesla’s laser-like focus on how to use Washington to its advantage can be seen in lobby disclosure reports. Over the last three years, the company spent $410,000 lobbying on legislation such as the stimulus and various bills to promote electric vehicles with tax incentives, loans and government-directed purchases.

From the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax – which allows government to collect information from your car to charge you by the mile – to an independent board empowered to raise the gas tax so lawmakers did not have to fear political backlash, it was all about big-government, big ideas and big spending. Academics, lobbyists and politicians all touted Washington-based solutions at the expense of consumers.

It was as though the 2005 highway bill – which passed with the support of 98% of lawmakers and bankrupted the Highway Trust Fund – had not happened. There was almost no attempt to acknowledge the federal government’s shortcomings.

Every so often, though, someone thoroughly committed to the status quo inadvertently made the argument that the states – not the federal government – are the best sources of innovation. While critical of empowering states, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Chamber of Commerce agreed that the roll state governors and city mayors play are the real driving force behind innovation.

Perhaps most telling though was a discussion with the Mayor of Atlanta, Tom Reed, who discussed his good working relationship with the state’s Republican governor and senators. He made a compelling case that bipartisanship was easier to achieve at the local level; that states and localities should do things on their own, as opposed to relying on the federal government.

Mayor Reed cited two examples of Georgia taking on their own problems: an expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and a regional transportation referendum, which would impose a ten-year tax increase to support defined transportation projects with broad public support.

The local perspective was refreshing, and while he most definitely wanted his Washington handouts, Mayor Reed was aware he could not depend on them because of the dysfunction in Washington. Local communities – even large cities like Atlanta – can get left behind in the morass that is Washington. Washington is consumed with Washington, and the only way to break through the Washington bubble is to become part of it – hiring your very own lobbyist to guide you through the process.

Unfortunately, many otherwise conservative lawmakers are caught in the Washington bubble, too. When they do, they forget what it is like to be a local stakeholder, instead of a Washington insider.

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