Tagged: Senate

What’s the Point in Controlling Congress, if You Have No Interest in Governance?

Let me start by providing some perspective.

Based on the current jobs numbers, 12.8 million Americans remain unemployed in the United States.  This means more people are unemployed than the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston.  Currently, 1.4 million construction workers are amongst those people, making up roughly 10% of the currently unemployed Americans.

Meanwhile the eighth funding extension of the last surface transportation authorization runs out on March 31, 2012.  It is not the time for Congress to remain mired in the partisanship we currently see.  Our elected officials need to wake up and enact legislation to put people back to work.  Now is the time for Congress to pass a bipartisan, multi-billion-dollar re-authorization of transit and highway programs.

Such a bill would allow states to hire these 1.4 million construction professionals to work building our nations roads, bridges, and transit systems.  This same legislation could also include a national strategy to leverage our federal transportation investments to build a modern, efficient transportation system to create quality, high-paying manufacturing jobs.

Congress has the ability to pass a surface transportation bill that lays a foundation for a long-term economic recovery strategy that creates millions of American jobs; provides increased transportation options and alternatives to fossil fuels; and recognizes our potential to invent and manufacture cleaner vehicles and transit systems here at home, instead of sending our dollars overseas.

Yet this is not what is happening in Congress.

Right now the Republican controlled House of Representatives has put forth a bill they call the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 7), which the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (a Republican who spent 14 years in the House, & six on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) has called “the worst transportation bill” he’s seen in decades. It is also a bill that the New York Times editorial board called “terrible.” In my opinion it is also a bill that puts policies in place that will cost current transportation workers their jobs.

It frustrates me to no end that while there is no time to waste to enact a surface transportation bill that puts millions of Americans to work fixing our transportation system that is falling apart, that the House puts forth a bill designed to serve the interests of K Street lobbyists and their corporate clients at the expense of the American people.

H.R. 7 undoes much of the good work the U.S. Department of Transportation has done over the last 3 years, and if enacted will have a chilling effect on jobs in the transportation sector.

The bill includes heavy-handed federal mandates forcing wholesale privatization of public transit systems. For example, transit agencies could only maximize their federal share of funding if they agree to privatize major portions of their operations. These mandates represent a radical departure from bipartisan policy that has left privatization decisions to local transit authorities. If enacted this would most likely cause layoffs of public transit workers across the country.

This is nothing more than a return to Bush administration policies that go beyond economics.  These provisions are about shrinking government and are driven by an obsession with free market solutions that often are neither appropriate nor practical.

For years anti-government zealots have told policy leaders that if poor management ruins service delivery; if aging buses plague a city; or if inadequate investment is causing mass disrepair of city infrastructure, then privatization – instead of investment and sensible reform – is the solution.

In this bill public mass transit is targeted by pro-privatization activists who, despite evidence to the contrary, believe the private sector can always deliver these services more efficiently while saving taxpayer dollars.  These advocates for mass transit privatization forget that our federally supported transit network was created in the aftermath of bankrupt or near bankrupt private operators in the late 1950s and early 1960s who could not operate a private, profitable mass transit system.  Yet, these advocates of wholesale privatization of mass transit declare that competition and private sector discipline will bring cost savings for taxpayers.  Their claim ignores a growing body of evidence which demonstrates severe problems of startling cost overruns, threats to safety and shabby service caused by poorly conceived privatization and contracting initiatives.  In order to meet the nation’s transit needs, our federal policies must invest the necessary resources to expand, not destroy, public transit services, and to impose more rigorous performance, labor and safety standards on private contractors when they are allowed.

What I find even more egregious is that as if this language in the base bill was not enough, the House Ways & Means Committee’s proposal to finance this bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act of 2012 (H.R. 3864) guts the Mass Transit Account (created by Congress with the blessing of President Ronald Reagan in 1982) by diverting nearly half of the federal investment in public transit ($25 Billion) that comes from dedicated fuel tax revenue.

What this means is that the Mass Transit Account which currently receives roughly 2.86 cents of the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, is eliminated, and to the extent fuel tax receipts for FY 2012 were already credited to the Mass Transit Account, this bill requires that money to be transferred from the Mass Transit Account to the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund.   Under this bill, going forward the gas tax will only fund highways.

In place of the Mass Transit Account, this package creates an “Alternative Transportation Account” and puts in it a one time $40 Billion transfer from the General Fund.  While Republican lawmakers argue that $40 billion is more money than the original trust fund, the yearly allotment of transit money would have to be fought for every appropriations cycle year after year, and after 2016, there is no more dedicated funding. This move will devastate local transit agencies, jeopardize needed services and threaten jobs in mass transit. It also comes as ridership on mass transit is at an all-time high and the need for affordable transportation and sustaining transportation jobs couldn’t be higher.  The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has some more great info on why this is a very bad idea, I suggest reading it.

Now in this age of austerity, with the Republican Party more concerned about deficit reduction than creating jobs, there is no way $40 billion dollars is coming out of the general fund, without an offset, or a pay-go. In non-wonk speak they have to fill the giant $40 billion whole they created in the General Fund with $40 Billion from somewhere else.  Now where are Republicans going to find that money?  Create a new user fee? a new tax?  No, that might be rational, instead they are going to pay for it … wait for it … with federal workers pensions!   Yes the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s bill H.R. 3813 Securing Annuities for Federal Employees Act of 2012  aka “Federal Employee Pension Reform” uses federal employees as a piggy bank to put the $40 billion taken from the General Fund for the new “Alternative Transportation Account” back in the General Fund.

This proposal would increase employee contributions to the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) by 1.5 percent of their salaries over a three-year period, starting next year.  Employees enrolled in FERS currently give .8 percent of their paychecks to the pension fund.  In short, most federal employees would pay more for pensions worth less. Conveniently, the savings from those provisions would be somewhere around $40 billion.  All this so House Republicans don’t have to raise the gas tax.

However that is not all.  Here are a few other reasons why this House package is so bad:

  • Slashes Amtrak’s funding by one-third at a time when the company is experiencing record success, killing good, middle-class jobs, threatening vital Amtrak services and placing passengers at risk
  • Rolls back vital transportation safety programs such as firefighter training and health and safety protections for workers transporting hazardous materials.
  • Opens nearly all of America’s coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, including environmentally fragile areas that have long been off-limits in order to raise revenue to help make up what has become an annual shortfall for transportation financing.
  • Demolishes significant environmental protections by imposing arbitrary deadlines on legally mandated environmental reviews of proposed road and highway projects, and by ceding to state highway agencies the authority to decide whether such reviews should occur.

House Republicans know that these funding proposals and many other policies are not going to be accepted by the Senate.  Moreover, the majority of these decisions were made behind close doors, with neither an opportunity for public input, nor (in some cases) consultation of the minority party.

Instead of working on a bi-partisan bill that would put Americans back to work, it seems more and more that this legislation is first designed to promote the agenda of corporate interests who fund elections during an election year.  Conveniently, it also attacks many of the interests of traditional Republican political adversaries.

This is not governance, this is bold political strategy.  This is using a position designed to serve the American citizens, to design legislation to serve your party in an election year in the hope it will please contributors to your PAC, while weakening the support of your political opponents, wearing them down, and making them expend resources that would be used otherwise in an election year to defeat politically pointed proposals. This legislation and the process involved in its crafting is the epitome of what is wrong in with our government in Washington, DC.

With its archaic rules, and inability to do anything without 60 votes, I usually consider the U.S. Senate to be the place where good ideas go to die.  However, the current lot running things in the U.S. House of Representatives are making the US Senate look downright progressive.  As milquetoast as I personally may find many of the provisions in their Surface Transportation package (MAP-21 & The Federal Public Transportation Act)  to be (compared to what I think they could do) at least they can put their differences aside and try to put a compromise forward that will put people to work.

At least the Senate is proving it still has an interest in governance.  Until the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives can prove they have an interest in governance, they shouldn’t have the control of that governing body. It is no wonder this Congress is less popular than polygamy.

On behalf of the 12.8 million Americans who remain unemployed, we all need to assure those around us are aware of what is being done and organize to make sure that those responsible for crafting policies to assure a long-term economic recovery strategy, have that, and not the next election, as their main interest.