President Barack Obama today will rally public support for the radical idea of protecting the safety of American travelers, millions of middle-class jobs and independent businesses, and the reliability of our nation’s transportation systems. Who could possibly oppose all of this? You guessed it—radical Tea Party-inspired members in Congress.
Here’s what’s at stake. The president today will call for a temporary clean extension of two critical federal bills that provide funding to keep our airports, highways, bridges, and transit systems safe. This is welcome news to the thousands of businesses and workers who earn their livelihood repairing and rebuilding the arteries of our national infrastructure system. So let’s look at how some Tea Partiers are putting ideology before responsible governing, beginning with the Federal Aviation Administration bill.
The recent showdown over FAA legislation earlier this summer threatened to scuttle $15 billion a year in needed airport construction to ensure travelers’ safety and tens of thousands of airport construction workers’ jobs. It was held up because some House Republicans are apoplectic about new federal rules that made the method of vote counting in union elections fair.
The new rule establishes that the outcome of an election to form a union is based on the number of votes cast. Opponents claim the rule makes it easier to unionize, arguing that those who don’t bother to cast their vote should be counted as “no” votes. It is highly doubtful that members of Congress would want their reelection decided by counting those who don’t show up to the polls as votes against them. Lawmakers must set aside their antiunion antics and heed the president’s call for a clean FAA extension by September 16. If they don’t then Americans should remember who is responsible for tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs amid our economy’s tentative recovery while airlines pocket the taxes intended to pay the wages of those who repair and build our airports.
The other transportation bill facing opposition from Tea Partiers in Congress is the federal highway bill. It expires on September 30. President Obama, the Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO all stand shoulder to shoulder in calling for an extension of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act. Arrayed against the highway bill are some House and Senate Republicans who want to terminate the bill, resulting in more than $42 billion in highway, bridge, and transit improvements screeching to a halt. In doing so, a small but vocal cadre of Tea Party ideologues is making a cynical play to eliminate the federal gas tax.
With the price at the pump well more than $3.00 per gallon, American consumers would like to see gasoline prices drop by 18.4 cents per gallon, the size of the federal gas tax. But most consumers would support the federal gas tax if told, for example, that many of the 70,000 bridges that are already classified as “structurally deficient” will continue to crumble or collapse if federal highway tax dollars are eliminated. The Tea Party fringe in Congress that wants to gut the essential federal government role of improving our infrastructure also fails to explain that eliminating the federal gas tax will add another million Americans to the ranks of the unemployed as well as bankrupt hundreds and perhaps thousands of construction, building materials, and manufacturing businesses across our nation.
What would the failure to extend the federal highway bill mean for states? Texas, for example, receives $3.2 billion a year in transportation funding to keep critical highways crisscrossing the Lone Star State safe and efficient while employing as many as 56,000 Texans in that effort. In 2010 the number of working Texans grew by only 35,000—far less than the number employed by federal transportation spending. Or consider Ohio, another highway crossroads of America. Killing the federal highway bill would mean nearly 20,000 Ohio workers receiving pink slips.
As our nation’s infrastructure rusts, cracks, and bursts, radical right-wing rhetoric makes it nearly impossible for Congress to rationally address our infrastructure crisis and jobs crisis. Yet our skies and roads require that we at least maintain the current level of federal funding. We should be spending more on these and other infrastructure projects to speed economic recovery, create jobs, and keep construction businesses alive. But because of Tea Party intransigence, this is the best we can do.
Progressives, though, look forward to President Obama calling on Congress to do much more when he unveils his jobs program next week. Tea Party radicalism cannot be allowed to stand in the way of economic growth and prosperity.
Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress.