Saturday, May 16, 2015

Another Road, Another Can

Tornadoes have slammed into several mid-country states, major tropical storms have percolated off the South Atlantic Coast, flooding and drought have stepped up their pace. Yet Congress is unable to address anything but band aid legislation to upgrade and expand our most basic infrastructure. Sure we have pledges of not shutting down the country from the Republican-dominated Congress, but the legislation that trickles through remains polarized, inadequate and short-term. And while the renewal of the Patriot Act and the review of the Iran nuclear treaty are sexy headline-grabbers, nothing impacts Americans in their day-to-day lives more than infrastructure.
A levee breach, a bridge or dam failure and our daily commute can have profound effects on everything we do… from economic competitiveness to survival. Evidence of this failure to provide what needs to be done comes with the pending expiration of the current federal surface transportation bill, one that addresses America’s transportation basics. In the past six years, Congress has been unable to accomplish much more than limping extensions of our inadequate federal highway program… there have been 32 such extensions during that time line.
Whether we have serious needs or not – from a public educational system that continues to deteriorate year-after-year, just as the rest of the world spends more on their students, to pulling back federal research dollars from sectors that used to be the big job-creators in a technologically-competitive world – the Congressional mandate these days is a combination of social conservatism, impeded immigration reform, austerity regardless of the consequences, and maintaining loopholes, inadequate financial and environmental regulation and low taxes for the rich. But even Democrats have been loath to vote to spend the needed cash.
Despite heavy lobbying from the Department of Transportation, armed with tons of photographs, statistics and hard engineering facts, the legislative needle barely moves.
A seemingly impotent Obama administration has grappled with a bill that at least minimally addresses what everyone knows: our streets and highways are deeply inadequate for current demand and in substantial disrepair. “To be fair, the White House sent a six-year, $478 billion highway bill to the Hill at the end of March, to be paid for with repatriation taxes, collecting money U.S.-based companies hold overseas, but that requires movement on another big lift: tax reform.
“Which, despite DOT’s best efforts — including a social media campaign and a bus tour — has always been the hold up. It’s a true bipartisan failing, with Republicans and Democrats alike unwilling to make unpopular choices (like raising the federal gasoline tax for the first time since 1993) to pay for roads and bridges.” The Washington Post, May 7th.
So we remain a reactive nation. Waiting until a bridge collapsed and kills the drivers and passengers in the car that get crushed. Doing little until a levee breaks as a hurricane hits (with massive loss of life and property along the way) costing billions in emergency relief plus then allocating money for repairs. It always costs more not to spend that money… and almost always sooner than we think.
Democratic rhetoric on the subject is as expected: “‘Now this is kind of a joke that there’s not even a bill, and we are 26 days away,’ said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), at a congressional hearing on the issue [in the first week of May]… or this: ‘I have to say, I’ve been a senator now for 18 months, and my frustration with our approach to infrastructure as a nation just grows with every day,’ said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).” The Post. But even the GOP knows a big fix is needed, it’s not an issue that a bill carefully crafted by the DOT that will solve the problem. It is a question of national priorities, tax reform and other nasties that Congress is unwilling to address. No one knows where the money will come from.
And so our lives continue to deteriorate. We read naked job statistics – unemployment is down to 5.4% the BLS tells us – but the pay levels and advancement opportunities remain horrible, and there are lots of folks who have slipped out of the labor pool through no fault of their own. We seem to have great difficulty dealing with unpleasant facts, so we spin and announce ineffective slogan-based solutions as if these choices would make the bad man stop. We just do not do well with truth, but we are great at kicking the can down the road.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I remember when America was “can do” long before there was “can kick.”

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