House Should Reject Senate Highway Bill, Move for Another SAFETEA-LU Extension

Just before 1pm today, the Senate passed its surface transportation reauthorization bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21, S. 1813). MAP-21 carries a price tag of $109 billion and would reauthorize federal highway programs for a mere 18 months. It passed 74-22, with principled fiscal conservatives voting “no.” Championed by Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican Senator Jim Inhofe — who happily admits he’s a big-government big-spender when it comes to infrastructure and national security — the bill dramatically increases funding levels while failing to make serious, significant reforms to current programs.

It also contains some terrible amendments, both germane to transportation and non-germane:

  • Amendment 1818, introduced by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). In another example of our elected officials abusing “national security” powers to serve their own self-serving ends, Levin’s completely non-germane amendment perverts a section of the PATRIOT Act designed to stop terrorists from laundering money. It gives more power to the Treasury to attack legitimate international businesses that operate in countries with superior financial regulatory climates (such as those that don’t force banks to take part in the global economic police state that Levin envisions). In essence, Levin wishes to force the rest of the world to adopt the failed authoritarian, anti-growth policies he has long championed (with some success, unfortunately).
  • Amendment 1819, introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). What is with the Rust Belt Democrats and absurd economic policy? Instead of attempting to drag the rest of the world down to a bad American regulatory climate like Levin’s amendment does, Brown’s Big Labor giveaway amendment attempts to drag America down to the Rust Belt’s economic morass — which is in large part self-imposed, by the way. The “Buy America” amendment pretends to be for “American jobs” and “American materials.” In reality, it is a sop to Sen. Brown’s Big Labor campaign donors and will significantly increase infrastructure construction costs across the country.

Thankfully, the two worst amendments failed to be included in the final bill that was passed (Kohl’s antitrust amendment and Hutchison’s anti-tolling amendment). But the price tag alone makes it impossible for any true fiscal conservative to support MAP-21. The House bill, for all of its flaws, was only to cost $260 billion over 54 months. The Senate’s 18-month, $109 billion calls for 25-percent more spending than the House bill.

MAP-21 continues to fund low-value, high-cost mass transit monuments projects at the current wasteful levels that, by the way, you drivers are all paying for with your fuel taxes. At least the House initially tried to end transit’s robbery of highway users before wimping out to the powerful mass transit and radical environmentalist lobbies. (Remember, folks: The next time President Obama, his congressional allies, or progressive pundits whine about “crumbling highways and bridges,” note that they continue to support diverting a full quarter of highway-user dollars into public mass transit systems.)

The House ought to reject the Senate’s bill (that has not yet been sent to the House, which is in recess this week) and instead move forward another extension of 2005’s transportation law, SAFETEA-LU. While this would be the ninth short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU since it expired in 2009, the best fiscal conservatives and free-market advocates can hope for is a true reform bill being introduced after the November elections. Now is not the time to cave to the rent-seeking transportation special interests.