Republicans Should Stop Bailing Out The Highway Trust Fund
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Republicans Should Stop Bailing Out The Highway Trust Fund

Never let a crisis go to waste, Rahm Emanuel so memorably stated. That mantra has guided the Obama administration from one big-government endeavour to another. Sometimes the crises were fabricated and predictable, others were unintended and surprising. Fearing the worst was yet to come, voters took away Nancy Pelosi’s gavel in 2010.

In many respects, the Republican-controlled House serves as a helpful and necessary check to Obama’s fascination with massive, government-centric solutions. This week, however, the House is poised to relapse by passing a bailout of the federal Highway Trust Fund.

To be clear, the funding shortfall — which will result in a slowing of federal payments to the states — was predictable. When MAP-21 passed in 2012, it was widely known spending would outpace revenues, but lawmakers hung their election-year hats on a series of reforms and hoped for the best.

The situation lawmakers find themselves in now is one of their own creation, and it serves to highlight the unsustainable nature of the current federal highway program. It has been bailed out multiple times since 2008, costing taxpayers more than $50 billion, and the Congressional Budget Office projects another $167 billion in bailouts will be necessary over the next decade.

Rather than continue down this path of bailout after bailout, Republicans should begin enacting serious reforms. But this bailout, like all the previous ones, is bankrupt. The only policy changes are a series of budget maneuvers and accounting gimmicks designed to “pay for” a ten-month spending binge … over the next decade.

Some may suggest a bailout is no place for the type of reforms Heritage Action seeks — the Transportation Empowerment Act introduced by Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) — but we believe it represents an opportunity to change the status quo.

Conservatives were eager to work with members to achieve reforms that would strengthen their hand when it came time for the next reauthorization in the spring. Over the past month however, it became clear that there was no appetite for even minor reforms by those controlling the process. Even the money syphoned from highways to mass transit seemed sacrosanct.

Conservatives cannot give their vote away for nothing, nor should their leadership expect them to be swayed by soft rhetoric and future promises. Instead, conservative members seeking real, sustainable reforms should oppose this bailout.

Opposition is not politically problematic, either. While some may, for partisan purposes, invoke the specter of a transportation shutdown, nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways this resembles the sequester, with the Democrats overplaying their rhetorical hand as 93-percent of total highway and transit spending will continue apace. That hardly qualifies as a “shutdown.”

Instead of governing by emergency fiat and continually kicking the can down the road, conservative reformers have an opportunity to focus their colleagues and their constituents on a real solution — putting more of this authority in the hands of states and localities and actually reforming highway policy.

There is an undeniable appetite for reform. Dozens of members, including four members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, have cosponsored TEA and many more are taking a close look or working on their own alternative. Each “no” vote on Tuesday brings those reforms closer to reality because it signals the inevitable end of the bankrupt status quo.

America is pining for leadership. Here’s your chance.

Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.

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