In response to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ announcement that unemployment is higher than it has been in 26 years, President Obama recently said he intends to huddle with senior officials in order to “explore additional options to promote job creation.” I certainly support this effort.
I also fully support my chairman, the head of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Rep. James Oberstar, when he says that we need a new highway bill—now. Not in 30 days, not by the end of the year, definitely not after the elections, but now.
Unfortunately, the president fails to see that the best possible way to promote job creation is to join with Chairman Oberstar and pass a highway bill. The administration, along with many in the Senate and even some in my party, have shied away from joining Chairman Oberstar because conventional wisdom states that in order to pass a new highway bill, we need to have a new funding source, most likely an increase in the gas tax. As few are willing to discuss this or other politically unpopular options, a new highway bill is essentially dead.
There is a better way. We can write a new highway bill using a readily available and politically expedient funding source. We simply repeal the discretionary spending appropriated in the last eight-plus years of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the “stimulus,” and redirect this funding to the Highway Trust Fund.
The bottom line is we need a highway bill that invests $450 billion in our roads, transit systems and bridges over the next six years. Current funding sources will fall approximately $140 billion short of this number.
However, the stimulus bill supplies $137.5 billion in discretionary spending in the years after its second anniversary, February 17, 2011. Recapturing and redirecting that spending would almost completely fund the Highway Trust Fund and enable us to write the highway bill we need without having the funding conversations we won’t have. Even if repealing the stimulus fails to provide all of the funding needed for our highways, we can tap the $6 billion in profits the country has earned from transactions authorized by the Troubled Asset Recovery Plan to cover the remaining shortfall.
By doing so, we allow for the passage of much-needed legislation which will succeed where the stimulus has failed. Specifically, the highway bill will provide an immediate spark to the economy as well as a prolonged investment in our infrastructure—two things that were supposed to be accomplished by the stimulus, but have to date failed to materialize.
When it was being debated, many administration officials described the stimulus as providing an immediate “jolt” to the economy, creating or saving 3.5 million jobs and holding unemployment below eight percent. However, the construction industry has shed more than 1.4 million jobs since December 2007, and its unemployment rate now stands at 16.5 percent. Clearly, the jolt was actually a thud.
In the months after passage of the stimulus, these officials have said that the bill was actually intended to provide steady support of the economy. Again, the facts tell a different story; the stimulus is not providing long-term certainty. In fact, a report by the Associated Equipment Distributors and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers found that the 40-percent decrease in the amount of construction equipment purchased has caused more than half a million Americans to lose their jobs. Simply put, construction firms have forgone purchasing new bulldozers, graders and earth movers because the federal government has not signaled its intent to invest in infrastructure.
As the stimulus has proven to be a short-term fizzle and long-term flop, we should redirect the out years of this funding to a six-year reauthorization of the highway bill—legislation which will actually provide economic opportunities to industries that need it most.
To me, the choice is simple. We can continue to hold money in the Treasury so that it can be used on wasteful, underperforming programs in the future while we put off passing our most important infrastructure investment bill, or we can admit our mistake and redirect the stimulus funding toward the Highway Trust Fund and allow for the expeditious passage of a new highway bill. iBi