President Barack Obama repeatedly says he came to Washington to build consensus and work in a bipartisan way to get things done. His push for federal investments in infrastructure is his best example of living up to that goal. Congressional leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate agree that we need to invest in repairs and improvements to our roads, bridges, mass transit, rail, and airports. Given the acrid political climate these days, bipartisan accord on a problem and a sense of how to solve it is refreshing.
The seventh temporary extension of the federal highway authorization bill known as SAFETEA-LU will expire September 30. The president’s speech certainly increased the pressure for the House and Senate to reach agreement on a highway bill extension before it expires. In doing so Congress should ensure the short-term highway bill extension includes the president’s proposed $50 billion advance on transportation spending above current levels. This can be done without increasing the federal budget deficit by pledging future gas tax revenues over the next three or four years to cover this cost or adopting one of the president’s proposals to close tax loopholes.
In short, to hasten the pace of transportation repairs and create jobs, Congress can agree to release more transportation funds now and reduce the annual expenditure levels when it finally passes a multiyear reauthorization of the transportation bill, which defines how gas tax receipts are spent on an annual basis. This proposal is key to quick job creation. Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics estimates that accelerating infrastructure spending along the lines proposed by President Obama will create as many as 400,000 new jobs. And Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that the president’s plan could create about 150,000 new jobs in the first year and add more than half a million jobs over three years.
It’s a simple and good proposal that makes sense to include in the temporary extension of the existing federal highway bill, which must pass by the end of this month. Although that’s less than 18 days away, the urgent need to ramp up infrastructure spending became even more obvious last weekend when Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana shut down the Sherman Minton Bridge between Indiana and Kentucky after a large crack was found in the main bridge supports.
In a surprise move, after passing a fiscal year 2012 highway appropriations bill a week ago that would have slashed infrastructure investment for the next six years by more than 30 percent compared to current spending levels, the full House yesterday passed a clean four-month extension of the highway bill. Unfortunately, the House combined the highway and Federal Aviation Administration funding extension into one joint short-term bill. In doing so, the House is attempting to force the Senate to address both the transportation and FAA bills at once, and to do so before the September 16 deadline for Federal Aviation Administration funding. That’s bad news because it’s not likely that both chambers of Congress can agree to include the president’s good suggestion of a $50 billion advance on funds for road and bridge repairs into the short-term extension bill in just three days.
Instead of accepting the House efforts to railroad the Senate with a joint bill, the Highway and FAA bills should be passed as separate bills. The highway bill extension should be bolstered to include the needed infusion of $50 billion in additional repair and construction funds. Failing to do so will mean lower job growth and more cracked and closed bridges.
President Obama has precious few days to help make this happen. Few members of Congress will be able to stick to their antispending talking points when the president is standing on a crumbling bridge in their home state asking why there is no movement in Washington.
Now that’s the way to build consensus.
Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow with the Economic Policy team at American Progress.