In the House, a transportation train wreck

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After Congress pushed the nation to the verge of catastrophe last year by delaying a deal to raise the debt ceiling until the eleventh hour, our capacity to be surprised by that body’s irresponsible gamesmanship was somewhat diminished. And yet, we still can’t help but be awe-struck by the mess the House of Representatives is preparing to make of the federal transportation bill, a key legislative priority for both parties.

On Tuesday, the House Republican leadership unveiled its version of the five-year bill. It isn’t just that this bill is so thoroughly partisan that it has no chance of being approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate; it’s that it is less a serious policy document than a wish list for oil lobbyists, and its funding proposals are so radical that they have been decried even by such conservative watchdogs as the Reason Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

What’s so bad about it? The bill slashes funding for inexpensive but worthwhile programs to improve biking and walking safety, cuts funding for Amtrak by 25% and runs roughshod over federal regulations aimed at protecting communities and the environment from the negative effects of transportation projects. But what’s far worse is the GOP scheme for helping to fund the bill’s $260 billion worth of infrastructure improvements over the next five years: opening up vast swaths of currently protected land to oil drilling.


Logically and politically, this makes no sense. On the logic front, it can’t work. Three bills under consideration in the House that are intended to fund the transportation bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, mandate oil shale leasing on federal lands and expand offshore drilling in sensitive areas. Yet even if drilling were allowed in these places, it would be many years before significant revenues started rolling in to the government, and it’s difficult to predict how much money would be generated, making advance construction planning impossible. Moreover, oil shale development is an unproven technology that may never generate a dime. And politically, drilling in such places as the Alaskan refuge is rightly a nonstarter.

If it weren’t already abundantly clear that this bill is intended simply to pander to the GOP base during an election year, Speaker John A. Boehner(R-Ohio) seasoned the red meat by promising to attach a rider mandating approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the biggest political football this side of the Super Bowl and an issue utterly unrelated to the purposes of the transportation bill.

If this is how congressional Republicans think they’re going to win the November elections, they might want to check their approval ratings. Americans are thoroughly sick of a Congress that would rather play political games than solve our country’s problems.