Transportation: Clash of Congressional Cultures

Some Republicans Work to Kill Federal Funding for Local Projects

Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:17am

Congress may have finally, after years of torturous delay — and even a brief summertime shutdown last year — passed reauthorization bills for the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, but that doesn’t mean infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges won’t be contentious topics in more than a few Congressional campaigns this fall.

Two weeks from now, the clash between the old culture of Congress as a public-works machine and the new culture of Congress as a late-starting engine of fiscal discipline will come to a head in a Republican primary north of Orlando that pits two House Members against each other.

Rep. John Mica, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is working to fend off vigorous attacks from a tea-party-backed freshman, Rep. Sandy Adams. She said the deal Mica brokered with Senate Democrats this summer — which will keep federal transportation programs running through September 2014 at a cost of $120 billion, or about in line with inflation — is an egregious example of old Washington politics wasting taxpayers’ money. He boasted that because the law includes no earmarks, consolidates or eliminates dozens of programs and streamlines environmental reviews of new roads and bridges, it hews to the party’s conservative principles. But he also conceded that his original ambitions were for a bill that would have spent tens of billions of dollars more.

House Republicans in some other highly competitive races, in both California and Washington, have a chance to secure electoral success by disavowing the longtime and totally bipartisan practice of going hard after earmarks for parochial pet projects as a way of proving their effectiveness. Instead, a small but growing group has started doing what for decades was seen as political suicide: asking fellow lawmakers to help deep-six projects in their own districts as a way to appeal to the fiscally conservative electorate that helped build the GOP wave of two years ago.

Solidifying Their Conservative Credentials

Nowhere has the dichotomy between the desire for infrastructure expansion and the yearning for fiscal prudence played out more acutely than in California, where a plan to connect the state’s largest metropolitan centers with a high-speed passenger rail line has turned into an election-year throwdown among the state’s politicians.

Though the portion of the Central Valley that he represents would contain parts of the route, freshman Republican Rep. Jeff Denham said his state could and should do without federal funding for the project — and he has made that cause a part of his intense campaign for a second term. In a bill the House passed last month to dictate transportation spending for the fiscal year starting in October, Denham won adoption of language that would bar any federal spending to help the state with its multibillion-dollar dream, which is among the most ambitious and costly transit proposals in the country. (It is envisioned connecting San Diego and San Francisco by way of Las Angeles, with trains traveling as fast as 220 mph.)

“We shouldn’t be throwing money we don’t have at a project most don’t have confidence in,” Denham said after Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law greasing the state’s regulatory wheels to kickstart the project.

Denham said that loss of confidence is justified by reports from the state’s high-speed rail authority that the project could run a decade late and cost $98 billion, more than double initial estimates. He also described the predictions of job creation and economic growth as overblown. One of those comes from Denham’s highly touted Democratic opponent, retired astronaut Jose Hernandez. He’s in favor of federal spending on the project, predicting it “will create jobs and opportunities for years to come” in the same way the interstate highway system did a half-century ago.

Rep. Devin Nunes is the other California Republican in the House who’s outspokenly opposed to the train. But he’s in a safe seat, while Denham’s considered only a slightly better bet to win than his Democratic opponent.

Still, GOP candidates’ doubling-down on opposition to high-speed rail serves their purposes on multiple fronts. Aside from breaking the mold of politicians touting their haul from the federal pot, their vociferous advocacy of blocking funding helps solidify their conservative credentials. And their position allows them to offer an easy-to-understand contrast between their views and those of the Democrats who control Sacramento and the executive branch in Washington, D.C. (Starting a high-speed rail network has been a big goal of President Barack Obama’s since he took office.)

Mica said at a hearing on the California project late last year that he thought the “one hope for high-speed rail of all the projects chosen was California. But now the California program is imploding.”

Denham’s move to kill a project that supposedly benefits his district doesn’t stand alone among Republicans in the House, although three other examples involve lawmakers without tough races this November.

California Rep. Tom McClintock, who became a conservative icon in state politics long before his election to Congress four years ago, secured adoption of an amendment to the transportation appropriations bill in June that would stop any money from flowing to a major subway project in San Francisco. Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot secured language in that same bill to halt federal money for a light-rail project that would benefit thousands of the people that he represents in Cincinnati and its suburbs.

Transit projects aren’t the only ones in the sights of Republicans looking to prove their budget-cutting prowess. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a freshman from the southwest corner of Washington, has been seeking to stop work on a flood mitigation system along Interstate 5, the main freeway running through her district and connecting Seattle to Portland. She said the project would have protected government property at the expense of homeowners, in addition to wasting taxpayer dollars. (Beutler’s public criticism has prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to take a new look at its approach.)

The Politics of Transportation

Mica is seeing the transformational politics of transportation playing out in his own re-election bid.

After the redrawing of Florida’s Congressional map, which had to reflect an almost 18 percent population increase in the past decade by creating two new House seats, Mica decided to run in the reconfigured district where his Winter Park home is rather than in a newly drawn and open seat next door. But Adams, a deputy county sheriff and veteran of the state House, also lives in a part of Orlando that’s in the same district.

For reasons that have as much to do with his huge fundraising advantage (and his significant edge in name identification) as with their fiscal policy disagreement, Mica is favored to win the Member-vs.-Member contest — and with it a ticket to an 11th term in the reliably Republican territory.

Still, a good amount of Adams’ campaign rhetoric has centered on what Mica has done while wielding the gavel at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Though Mica’s original five-year, $260 billion bill introduced in late January never made it to the floor, he was able to win some significant policy concessions from Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chaired the conference committee that wrote the final version of the legislation. Among them was an overhaul of the transportation enhancements program, which sets aside Highway Trust Fund apportionments for projects such as bike paths and highway beautification, a longtime target of fiscal conservatives.

And the conference committee’s version included no earmarks.

Adams has argued that the deal Mica struck reveals a lack of commitment to conservative principles, repeating often in press shop communiques that Mica called Boxer — often derided on the right as an icon of the liberal left — his “soul mate” in working on the transportation bill. She also has played up her opponent’s unwillingness to endorse a permanent earmark ban.

In the end, the bill won a unified bloc of Democratic votes in the House and also the votes of three-quarters of the Republicans. Although the bill will provide about $3.6 billion for the Sunshine State’s highways in the next 14 months, Adams and four other Republicans from Florida voted “no,” including Rep. Connie Mack IV, the party’s likely Senate candidate this fall. The state’s Senators split, with a “yes” from Democrat Bill Nelson, who’s seeking a third term, and a “no” from freshman Republican Marco Rubio.