Members of Congress have many activities competing for their time. In addition to their serving on committees and passing legislation they have to provide constituent services, meet with office guests, and fundraise. During my time on Capital Hill, policy advisors and committee staff were happy when Members delved deeply into policy. There are only 24 hours in a day and on Capital Hill, that is seldom enough time.
But one website, Streetsblog, is upset that members of Congress are going to committee meetings. This group is unhappy that members of Congress are doing their job. Streetsblog dislikes the fact that Several Freshman Republicans are attending meetings that are often attended only by staffers. According to Streetsblog:
Our source said it’s set up an uncomfortable dynamic and has put a chill on what should be frank conversations. The professional staff members understand they’re there to compromise, but the lawmakers themselves don’t seem inclined to do so.
Hmmm. When Politico Morning Transportation inquired they found a slightly different story:
Multiple GOP House sources concurred that members have been attending meetings — as they should. Said one senior aide: “Members have attended some of these meetings ...that blog post (Streetsblog) almost makes it sound as if conferees have no business participating in conference discussions, which is ridiculous. House Republican conferees are very engaged in this process and on these issues.”
My guess is that Streetsblog is upset that Republican members who disagree with the website’s philosophy of spending federal gas taxes on local non-motorized transportation projects are attending these meetings. If pro-Streetsblog Green Democrats were attending these meetings and lobbying to redirect gas taxes from highway use to bicycle paths, that would be fine.
Streetsblog is also claiming that the “compromise-averse freshmen in the House” are derailing the, “carefully crafted compromise over the Transportation Enhancements program.” Actually, the compromise was already derailed by environmentalists.
The Transportation enhancement (TE) program, funded by the gas tax and included in the highway section of the transportation bill, funds non-highway related provisions such as acquisition of historic battlefields, rehabilitation of historic transportation buildings and establishment of transportation museums. Republicans, some Democrats and most transportation researchers consider the program a waste of limited funding resources. However, environmentalists who love this program have a lot of influence in the Democratic Party. Senate Republicans chose to take the high ground and compromise on the Transportation Enhancements Program. The compromise prevents program funds from being spent on transportation museums but allows TE funds to be spent on new programs that are not necessarily related to transportation.
Apparently unsatisfied that transportation funds could no longer be used for museums, another member of the Committee who refuses to identify himself slipped TE program changes into the Senate bill the day before Senators voted on it. Not knowing that the TE compromise had been nullified the night before, Senators voted to accept the bill by unanimous consent without any debate. This last minute change deliberately ruined the bipartisan process. The four transportation committee leaders: Barbara Boxer, James Inhofe, Max Baucus and David Vitter repeatedly reiterated how the TE compromise kept the bill on track. Apparently somebody else did not get the message.
What was this change? The amendment changed TE administration from State DOT’s to local governments. State DOT’s are the official recipients of most transportation funding. Many states set up state DOT’s explicitly to award funding from national transportation bills. DOT’s have administrative efficiencies that local governments do not. Further, they are less apt than local governments to distribute funds as political favors.
Senate Republicans and some Senate Democrats felt tricked and insisted that the House make changes to the program. Some Republican House members are trying to eliminate TE funds entirely. And since someone in the Senate stabbed the bipartisan process in the back, can anyone blame House members for trying to remove this provision from the final bill? If House leaders learned anything it is that the Senate’s bill while marketed as bipartisan was in reality far friendlier to Democrats.
I am happy that members are attending committee business. Transportation is very important in the U.S. The issue is not as sexy as tax policy or health-care but its just as important. Although I seldom agree with Streetsblog, the website often adds a different, valuable perspective to the debate. And Streetsblog is correct in noting that in some ways members can slow down the committee process. But the fact that members are showing up to committee meetings is a good thing—members are actually doing their job. Members are juggling their schedules so that they can take an active role in shaping legislation. Over the long term, this can only help transportation policy. Perhaps I should thank the one Senator who killed Transportation bipartisanship in the Senate. It may end up generating a lot more interest in transportation.