Las Vegas Sun

September 17, 2014

Currently: 90° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

other voices:

Congress: The road to roads

Well, all I can say is thank God we’ve got that Highway Trust Fund fixed.

Congress raced for its August break in a mad scramble, with many complaints about voting on legislation nobody had ever seen (“What bill are we talking about?”) and plaintive cries of: “We can do better than this!”

There is actually no evidence whatsoever that the current Congress can do better than this. But good news! The House and Senate made a last-minute agreement to keep the nation’s road-building programs going for a few more months by putting some cash into the exhausted Highway Trust Fund.

The money will mainly come from “pension smoothing.” Perhaps you have never heard of pension smoothing. It involves allowing businesses to put less than the required amount into their pension funds, thus creating more profits for the companies, which leads to more tax revenue for the government. Until later, when the whole thing turns into geysers of red ink.

I think I speak for us all when I respond: “Say what?”

“It’s traditional that if you’re trying to fund something and you don’t have the funds, you screw around with pensions,” sighed Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. The current session seems to have nearly exhausted Ornstein’s capacity for shock and awe, but he did call the Highway Trust Fund gambit “outrageous.”

House Republicans rejected an attempt by the Senate to drop the pension smoothing. I would not be wowed by the Democrats’ high sense of fiscal integrity on this point, since they did try to use the very same maneuver earlier this year, in an unsuccessful attempt to extend unemployment benefits. On the other hand, the Democrats are not the party that spends all of its time yelling about unfunded entitlements.

In a perfect world, Congress would figure out a serious, long-term plan to fix bridges, improve roads and update airports. We now make about half as much effort as Europe does on these matters. You may be tired of hearing people ask why we can’t have day care like Sweden. But it does not seem too much to demand a Spanish level of commitment to infrastructure repair.

The best way to get the things back on track would be by raising the gas tax. Such a plan was proposed in the Senate by Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. This fine, bipartisan effort went nowhere whatsoever.

(Simultaneously going nowhere: 26 State Department nominations, which Senate Republicans are holding up because they are irked about something Harry Reid did last year. One would be ambassador to Sierra Leone, one of the places the Ebola virus is breaking out.)

But thanks to Congress, the Highway Trust Fund lives! For a minute. And in another burst of action, the Senate and House approved a $17 billion bill for veterans’ health care. Without, once again, actually financing it.

“Who doesn’t love veterans?” said Corker, who was one of only three no votes in the Senate. “But I think anything that’s important enough to have is important enough to pay for.”

Boy, this has been quite a week for Corker. “I’ve been here 7 1/2 years,” he said in a phone interview. “We have not solved one single problem since I’ve been here. It’s just so frustrating.”

Speaking of not solving problems, there was the border. President Barack Obama, as you know, asked Congress for $3.7 billion to take care of the crisis created when tens of thousands of children from Central America’s most violence-ridden countries began crossing over and asking permission to stay.

So the Senate:

A. Took up a bill to give the president $2.7 billion for the border. The White House seemed pretty satisfied, since half a loaf is now regarded as the height of near-unattainable bipartisan statesmanship. The bill also included $615 million to fight wildfires and $225 million for Israeli defense systems.

B. Killed the bill on a 50-44 vote when Republicans demand changes in the law that guarantees those children immigration court hearings. We will try not to dwell on the fact that the law in question was passed during the Bush administration to combat child sex trafficking.

C. Failed to approve the nomination of an ambassador to Guatemala, one of the countries at the center of the current crisis. Because, you know, Harry Reid.

D. Rallied at the last minute and passed the part about Israeli defense systems.

And what, you may be asking, about the House? At its highest moment of functionality, the House was considering a $659 million border bill that turned the Senate’s half a loaf into a crouton.

From there things slid downhill. During a deeply depressing and meaningless debate about deporting children, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., complained that all the House had done in its last week was vote to “sue the president and deregulate pesticides.”

Not true. Highway Fund. Highway Fund. Highway Fund.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy