by Robert Cruickshank
During the debate over the stimulus, it became clear that the Obama Administration planned to use the transportation bill reauthorization to offer the long-term changes in funding and modal priorities they had been promising. Unfortunately, the administration is getting cold feet on pushing the transportation bill this year, setting up a battle with two of the House's leading mass transit advocates, James Oberstar of Wisconsin and Peter DeFazio of Oregon (both are Democrats), as Streetsblog SF reports:
It's no secret that key leaders of the House transportation panel and the White House economic team don't get along -- from quips about shovel skills to a stimulus "shouting match," committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and his top lieutenant, Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), have become two of their party's leading Obama administration skeptics.
But the committee is now fighting a two-front battle, against an administration determined to put off a new six-year transport bill and a Senate that yesterday approved a "clean" 18-month extension of existing law.
Undaunted, Oberstar and DeFazio today pressed U.S. DOT undersecretary Roy Kienitz to clear one thing up: If the administration wants policy changes added to the 18-month stopgap, and if Kienitz agrees that the House bill's "goals are very similar" to the White House's, should the Senate be allowed to press on with its "clean" bill?
Kienitz answered carefully: "I don't think it's my place to try to make policy on that." A nonplussed DeFazio then wondered who would make policy on the transportation extension, if not senior DOT officials.
"I'm coming to learn that's a bit complicated," Kienitz said.
The problem is that the administration is skittish about the tax increases that would be necessary to fund the $500 billion bill Oberstar has worked out. Senator Barbara Boxer has offered support for indexing the gas tax to inflation, and DeFazio has proposed a 0.01 percent tax on oil speculators, but both are unpalatable to an administration looking at a major battle over taxes to fund the health care reform plan currently dominating the Congressional agenda.
Instead, Obama wants to extend the existing transportation bill for 18 months - kicking it into 2011, past the November 2010 elections. It's not exactly an act of leadership, but then this administration is making a mark for itself as being fundamentally reactive on virtually every major policy issue it is confronted with. Setting the agenda and systematically building support for it and selling it to lawmakers and the public - in other words, doing the stuff that every president has done since at least FDR - does not come naturally to the Obama Administration.
Oberstar is livid about the delay, but anger crosses party lines, with Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich calling for at most a 12-month extension but would like Obama to get serious about the transportation bill itself. As Streetsblog's Elana Schor noted that the US Chamber of Commerce wants a new transportation bill and is willing to lobby to get it.
Another factor in the complicated fight is the fact that the highway trust fund is quickly becoming insolvent. This is not a new situation - it has been in trouble for nearly a decade owing to anti-tax sentiment - but it is another reason why an extension of the existing bill isn't itself a simple solution.
Ultimately the Obama Administration is going to have to resolve its budding identity crisis. Is it really an agent of change, as the inclusion of $8 billion for HSR in the stimulus indicated? Or is it dedicated to preserving the status quo, just without the insane misanthropy of the Bush-Cheney years? The transportation bill is one area where the administration is going to have to choose, and soon.