Transportation bill: Do Republicans want to sabotage the economy?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said aloud what many Americans must be thinking these days — that at least some Republicans in Congress would like to see the U.S. economy worsen in order to boost their chances of success in the November election.

The evidence? The GOP's continued resistance to approving a multiyear transportation authorization bill. Senator Reid told The Hill that he's heard House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is leading the charge to delay the Senate bill — and the tens of thousands of jobs it would create.

House Speaker John Boehner denies the allegation, but he has also announced that he's ready to pull the plug on negotiations over the measure until after the election if the two sides fail to work out an agreement before June 30. That gives negotiators less than three weeks to shake hands on something that's had them at odds for years.

What's frustrating is that the bill — which has been whittled down to a mere 15-month extension (and might even be trimmed to six months, according to Mr. Boehner) — should be a fairly routine matter. That has been the case in years past, when preserving and expanding U.S. transportation infrastructure, including roads, bridges, mass transit, ports and airports was seen as too important to the national interest to be derailed by partisan bickering.

But that was then. The problem now is that too many extraneous issues have been tied to the measure, including various "offsets" and "pay-fors" to finance the bill instead of merely updating the federal gasoline tax to allow for inflation over the last two decades. In reality, there's a lot of accounting gimmickry involved.

There's billions of dollars, for instance, from a decrease in federal contributions to employee pensions and billions more taken out of the Gulf oil spill compensation fund. There's even an allocation from the expected fines and penalties paid by tax delinquents who have their passports revoked.

And that's only the financing side. Republicans have tried to attach a provision to force the federal government to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada — never mind that experts say it would do nothing to reduce U.S. gas prices or improve transportation, while circumventing the normal environmental review process. There's also been a robust debate over how states can spend the "transportation enhancement" funds that are often used for such things as bike lanes, land preservation and roadside beautification.

What members of Congress ought to be doing is worrying less about such nonsense and focusing more on jobs and the economy by passing the bill as it came out of the Senate. The faster states and local governments can give a go-ahead on needed transportation projects, the faster contractors can be hired and people can be put back to work.

Make no mistake, such building projects help the U.S. economy at least twice over. First, they allow the construction industry — one of the hardest-hit segments of the economy — to hire workers. But second, the completed projects mean less gridlock and greater efficiency for employers who depend on the nation's roads, rails and airline connections for their livelihoods.

Considering how weak the most recent U.S. jobs report turned out to be, the federal government ought to be making infrastructure spending a high priority. This is work that needs to be done one way or the other, so why not now, when it's cheaper and the jobs are needed so desperately? Deficit reduction is a long-term goal; growth ought to be the near-term priority.

The U.S. has been slowly neglecting its transportation systems as well as other civil infrastructure for years. One study estimated that infrastructure deficit at $2 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers last year estimated that infrastructure deficiencies add $97 billion a year to the expense of driving in the U.S. and cost the economy $32 billion annually in travel delays.

If the transportation bill dies, Republicans need to be held accountable. Sitting on highway and mass transit spending — like sitting on the infrastructure spending included in President Barack Obama's jobs bill — is harmful to the economy and to U.S. global competitiveness. It might boost Mitt Romney's chances in November, but the price is simply too high.

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