The right road
The suspicion promoted by supporters of President Obama that Republicans in Congress are actually trying to make the economy worse between now and Election Day was undermined somewhat last Friday. That's when Congress approved, on a significantly bipartisan vote, a bill to keep billions in transportation dollars, and millions of jobs, in the pipeline.
It was another down-to-the-wire exercise by the riven wings of Congress. But, in the end, neither Democrats nor (most) Republicans could stomach the prospect of federal transportation funds being shut off Saturday, in the height of what is supposed to be construction season, when the latest in a series of short-term extensions was due to expire.
Sadly, Utah's two senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee were among the 19 Senate votes, all Republican, opposing the two-year extension of federal transportation spending. In the House, Utah's delegation was more practical, with Republicans Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop and Democrat Jim Matheson voting with the 373-52 majority to pass the bill and send it on for President Obama's expected signature.
The success in passing the $120 billion bill belongs to the deal-making abilities of the Senate's most-despised (if you are a Republican) member, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, and the Senate's other most-despised (if you are a Democrat) member, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Here's how they did it. They compromised.
The Republicans took out their demand that the transportation bill authorize the controversial Keystone XL petrochemical pipeline that is supposed to run from Canada to Louisiana. That dubious project is not dead. It just will have to jump through all the appropriate bureaucratic hoops, rather than be granted a special congressional indulgence.
The Democrats, meanwhile, caved on provisions that would exempt some smaller highway projects from environmental reviews, as well as some slight cuts in funding for bike paths and pedestrian walkways.
In opposing the bill, Hatch raised the valid point that the Federal Highway Trust Fund is not fully funded, requiring the government to take from general revenues (i.e., deficit spending) money that in theory should be coming from the federal gas tax. What he failed to say is that the reason the fund falls short is that Congress has not dared to raise the federal gas tax, stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.
The 2.9 million jobs at stake needed to be preserved. This opportunity for a lot of low-cost construction work needed to be seized. Passing this bill was the right thing to do. No matter who it helps in November.
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