It should not be this difficult

By Rep. Mike Capuano

The Hill
June 20, 2012

In less than two weeks, the ninth extension of the transportation reauthorization bill will expire, making it necessary to pass another short-term measure. House and Senate conferees are working to resolve their differences but itís unlikely that a compromise will be ready for floor action any time soon.

It shouldnít be this difficult to pass a bill that everyone agrees will create jobs. But nothing in Washington is easy these days. So what seems to be the problem? Some Members are insisting that language directing the Administration to take action on the Keystone XL pipeline must be included — even though it doesnít really belong in a transportation bill. Others are insisting on limiting funding for the bill and on limiting its scope to a year or two. Previous transportation bills have provided enough funding and covered multiple years, giving states and municipalities some long-term certainty when it comes to planning projects.

None of these issues should prevent progress on the most important transportation legislation that Congress considers. So whatís really going on here? In short — we have the latest example of the complete unwillingness of some Members to compromise on anything. House leadership would not even put the Republican version of a transportation bill on the floor because they couldnít get enough of their own Members to support it.

You hear a lot of talk in Washington about improving the economy and creating jobs. If that is really the goal, then the transportation bill should pass quickly and it should pass easily. Of course, thatís not happening. By way of reminder, the last time Congress reauthorized transportation spending, which was in 2005, the Conference Report passed the House by a vote of 412-8.

I donít think anyone would dispute the fact that infrastructure spending creates jobs and a comprehensive transportation network is a benefit to a strong economy. A 2007 Federal Highway Administration study concluded that for every $1.25 billion in federal spending on transportation infrastructure, 35,000 jobs are supported.

There is broad agreement that if the Senate-passed transportation reauthorization bill were put to a vote in the House, it would pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. It passed in the Senate with a vote of 74-22. Thatís not because it is a perfect bill, it isnít. The Senate bill is, however, an acceptable compromise in the current climate. So why not put it up for a vote?

There is really only one reason — a small group of uncompromising extremists in the House Republican Caucus is putting enormous pressure on a majority of Republicans, and that majority wonít stand up to the extremists in their own party and seek reasonable compromise. This type of politics is a recipe for disaster. If Congress cannot deal with what has historically been bipartisan legislation, how can anyone expect action on the more controversial issues that we all know will be coming up in the months ahead? The gridlock over the transportation bill is emblematic of what I believe is a fundamental question that is playing out in almost everything that Congress debates lately. What kind of role should government play in our society? Should government have a role in health care or education or job creation or transportation? I think the answer is yes and we certainly should have a robust discussion over the way that government can best be involved. I realize that some Members strongly disagree and will not compromise that belief. However, I also know that most are willing to seek common ground if simply given a chance.

Our nationís infrastructure is crumbling. Many public transit agencies, including in Massachusetts, are struggling to close budget gaps while at the same time trying to maintain basic services. Many expansion projects face an uncertain future because states donít know how much federal money will be available. A robust public transportation network and upgraded infrastructure have a measurable impact on the economy. People will get to their jobs more easily and goods will move more quickly. Thereís also an added environmental benefit to improved public transit options and upgraded infrastructure.

Reauthorizing the transportation bill should be one of the easiest tasks facing this Congress. It creates jobs and improves the economy. But the path to the Presidentís desk is uncertain. It doesnít have to be this hard. Legislating is about compromise and itís long past time to resolve the impasse over the transportation bill.