Last week was a transportation disaster in Congress. A train wreck, if you will. A bridge too far. A road to nowhere. Pick your metaphor. It was the first solid indication (other than a lot of yelling) that a government shutdown in September is a real possibility because lawmakers can't figure out how to fit all of their domestic policy needs into a restrictive budget. It's like a 40-year-old trying to squeeze into an old pair of jeans from high school. Sometimes the seams split.
In both the House and the Senate, two separate versions of a spending bill to fund the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development suffered severe setbacks. The legislation is major domestic policy driver for the next fiscal year, and it was precisely because of overall budget constraints that both the House and the Senate found themselves at an impasse. It's worth noting that these constraints are self-imposed—from sequestration and the GOP-spawned austere budget outline from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. There are huge disagreements about general government spending, for sure. But infrastructure, which everyone agrees is important, is suffering as a result.
In the Senate, Republicans blocked the transportation and housing bill because it exceeded the spending levels in the 2011 Budget Control Act. In the House, GOP leaders postponed a floor vote until September because they didn't have the votes for final passage. Why? Rank-and-file House Republicans (and all Democrats) protested that the bill cut too much from the infrastructure budget.
As any Hill-savvy appropriations watcher knows, the next time we'll see any funding for transportation and housing in Congress will be as part of a giant omnibus spending bill, probably eked out in the wee hours sometime in November as part of a massive horse-trading venture involving the debt ceiling and the sequester, at the very least. Don't be surprised if Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, and immigration reform get thrown in as well.
There are opportunities lost when spending bills don't pass in a regular fashion. In just one example, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., successfully added an amendment to the transportation spending bill requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to study low-airspeed voice warning systems. That's a technology that could have saved Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from crashing on its final approach to San Francisco International Airport last month. Who knows what happens to that amendment now, after House leaders yanked the bill from the floor before final passage.
What does it say about infrastructure that a majority of lawmakers are unwilling to cut it to the bone? What will happen if, in the best case scenario, current spending levels remain in place for the next fiscal year? Are there other lost opportunities? Republicans insist that infrastructure spending should be kept within their austere guidelines? Are they right? If so, how can the transportation system thrive under that scenario? What would be a better scenario?