The Upside of GOP ‘Hypocrisy’ on Transportation Stimulus Grants

To call Rep. Pete Sessions (TX), chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, a critic of the Obama administration's stimulus law would be putting it mildly. Sessions marked the one-year anniversary of the law's passage last week by labeling the stimulus a "massive spending binge" that only "allegedly" created jobs in his district.

PeteSessionsBicyclePump.jpgIs his advocacy for Dallas's streetcar a sign of things to come from Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX, pictured with bicycle pump)? (Photo: Bildungblog)
So Democrats could be forgiven for chuckling at the letter written by Sessions last fall in support of stimulus funding for Dallas' new downtown streetcar. Giving a TIGER stimulus grant to the streetcar project "will create jobs in the region and improve the quality of life for North Texans,” Sessions wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at the time -- a request that paid off, as the streetcar claimed $23 million in TIGER money.

And Sessions wasn't alone, as Bloomberg reports today in a must-read story that counts more than 100 critics of the stimulus law (both Republican and Democratic) who later turned around to seek TIGER aid for transportation projects in their districts. Bloomberg quotes Sessions attempting to contextualize his position on the streetcar:

Sessions, in an e-mail, called the stimulus an “abject failure” and said he’d vote against it again if he could.

The lawmaker said his objections don’t keep him “from asking federal agencies for their full consideration of critical infrastructure and competitive grant projects for North Texas when asked to do so by my constituents.”

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (WY), appointed by the president to co-chair a highly visible deficit reduction commission, told Bloomberg that lawmakers' have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to stimulus aid amounts to "hypocrisy."

But it could also have an unlikely upside for backers of the infrastructure policy-making strategy epitomized by the $1.5 billion TIGER program (short for Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery).

TIGER was intended as a first step towards transitioning federal transport spending away from an oft-politicized, formula-based process that frequently favors road projects over transit to a merit-based process that favors projects with the biggest economic and environmental benefits. As the Natural Resources Defense Council's Colin Peppard noted today on the National Journal's blog, reformers hope to see TIGER become a model for the next long-term transport bill.

In that light, support for federal streetcar aid from an uber-conservative such as Sessions could be a sign of bipartisanship to come once Congress gets to work in earnest on that long-term transport bill. Another conservative Texas Republican, Rep. Kay Granger, was caught by Bloomberg seeking help for a toll road that she claimed would generate 3,500 jobs -- even as her state's GOP gubernatorial candidates duke it out over who can criticize toll roads more vocally.

To be sure, not every Republican who popped up in the Bloomberg story was seeking TIGER funds for clean transportation projects. But if conservative lawmakers such as Sessions and Granger were willing to stick their necks out for road pricing and transit at the behest of their constituents, winning passage of a reform-minded federal transport bill may well be easier than Democrats think. (If only they could figure out a way to pay for it.)