By Dennis Polhill
What is wrong with this picture?
Traffic congestion is the worst ever and is worsening. Congestion imposes costs that exceed the cost to eliminate it. Half of the gas tax goes to the Federal government, which neither owns nor operates any highways, railroads, airports or transit facilities. Congress increasingly uses transportation revenues for non-transportation purposes and imposes rules that make it difficult for states to solve problems.
One could conclude that Congress wishes to damage both the mobility and economic well-being of America. Instead, Congress’ motivation is merely a quenchless thirst for more power, control, and self-gratification.
It is said “spending to politicians is like drugs to addicts.” There may be no better proof than Federal Transportation legislation. Even though there is no longer a national transportation policy, taxpayers spend $40 billion per year to fund it.
The Federal government was slow to involve itself in transportation, because the U.S. Constitution clearly identified “internal improvements” as outside Federal domain enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. At least nine presidents issued no less than 20 vetoes of transportation legislation as “unconstitutional.” The importance of mobility to the outcome of World War II provided the rationale for ignoring the Constitutional limitation.
The Federal gas tax, implemented in 1956, would finance construction of the 40,000 mile “National Defense Highway System.” Scheduled to expire in 1972, the tax was repeatedly extended and increased. The prohibition against Congress designating specific projects in transportation bills ended in 1982, coincidently (or not) the same year Interstate construction was finished. Reagan vetoed the bill because it contained 152 “earmarks.”
The current reauthorization was debated for over 2 years as Congress contemplated the amount of pork and the extent to inhibit state leadership in transportation. The prospect of a Bush veto was a beacon of hope for those wishful of enlightened or less damaging policy.
The veto threat ended talk of a tax increase and reduced spending to $286.4 billion. H.R.-3 passed both houses with veto-proof margins, increasing “earmarks” to 6,371. Freshman Oklahoma U.S. Senator, Tom Coburn, in his book “Breach of Trust” writes about his tenure as a U.S. Representative during the 1998 reauthorization, “Representative Largent accused the Transportation Committee of trying to buy his vote. Largent said the committee asked him where he wanted to spend $15 million in his district. A disgusted Largent said, ‘My vote is not for sale.’”
This practice continues and explains the bipartisan veto-proof majorities in both houses. It also explains the coincidence that four of Colorado’s seven U.S. House Districts are “earmarked” for $16 million each. Committee members and leadership receive more “earmarks.” This is why Alaska’s per capita “take” is over 10 times that of second place, Washington State. The 92 percent return of taxes to Colorado is an improvement. It means Colorado taxpayers lose only about $350 million.
The behavior of Congress has become so outrageous that scholars from both the left and the right now advocate that the Federal gas tax should be delegated to the states. In a recent lecture, Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution suggested, “It is time to seriously look at the possibility that we need to devolve all transportation funding out of Washington.”
Congress prefers more power, control and ego-gratification, not less. The reauthorization had included the creation of the Transportation Finance Corporation. Fortunately the Bush-veto threat helped to kill TFC. TFC would have used the gas tax to finance debt for more spending. As with the slippery slope of earmarks, the concept would have begun small at $30 billion. Taken to the extreme the $40 billion annual revenue might eventually add another trillion to the national debt, rapidly nearing $8 trillion. TFC spending would serve as an obstacle to devolving the tax to the states. To the extent that debt is wise, the decision is better-made by the respective states.
There is no example in history of a corrupt political institution reforming itself. At Runnymede, under threat of death King John reluctantly signed Magna Carta. Amazingly tolerant of Congressional abuses, citizens patiently await reform. Understandably fearful of being denied their states’ rightful funds, state legislators are cowed. Yet hope for leadership persists. In 2003 Colorado overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution (97-3) asking that the Federal gas tax be devolved. Arizona passed a similar resolution in 2004. How outrageous does Congressional behavior have to be before this corruption ends?
Abe Lincoln wisely commented, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”