LaHood Defends Spending War Savings on $476B Transportation Plan

When Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama balked at the increase in transportation spending recommended by President Obama’s 2013 budget, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood did not mince words: “America is one big pothole,” he said.

Secretary LaHood defended the president's proposal to pay for transportation using war savings. Photo: ##http://budget.senate.gov/democratic/##Senate Budget Committee##

LaHood was testifying before the Senate Budget Committee yesterday to explain and defend the President’s proposed transportation budget, as he has done for each of the past three years. And just as in previous years, LaHood was forced onto the defensive. The budget recommends a six-year surface transportation program worth $476 billion, including $47 billion for one of Obama’s signature transportation initiatives, high-speed rail.

Obama’s budget even includes a pay-for, albeit a controversial one: The President proposes to take half of the expected savings from removing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and spend it on transportation, while using the other half to pay down the national debt.

Using war savings to pay for transportation elicited doubts from committee leaders from both parties yesterday. Sessions, a Republican, pointed out that “we borrowed money to pay for the war,” rather than raise taxes to fight it, “so when the war ends we just don’t have to borrow as much.” Sessions also pointed out that the war savings figure endorsed by the Congressional Budget Office uses a model that assumes ten years of spending at current levels, and nobody expects America to maintain anything resembling its current troop presence in Afghanistan for ten years.

Chairman Kent Conrad was more measured in his concern: “War funding is very unpredictable… I’ve always been reluctant to use war savings to pay for something, that’s a bonus in terms of bringing down deficits and debt.”

LaHood said he liked Obama’s pay-for plan, and was especially excited that Congress could no longer accuse the president of proposing investment without a revenue source. As to the reliability of war savings: “War is not in my portfolio,” LaHood said.

When LaHood was grilled by Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) about why the federal government would ever want to be in the business of subsidizing high-speed rail, Mark Begich (D-AK) came to his defense: “We subsidize roads, big time… I understand the senator’s concern about HSR but the point is, we subsidize all of it: You name it, we subsidize it, because it’s good for business if we do it right.”

However, the committee was largely silent on suggesting any alternative funding sources. Ron Johnson (R-WI) hit upon the unspoken theme of the past three years of reauthorization efforts when he said, “It’s politically poisonous to raise the gas tax, so why not look at utilizing energy resources?” The question was reminiscent of an exchange between senators Michael Enzi and Max Baucus during last week’s Finance Committee hearing, when Enzi proposed — and immediately withdrew — an amendment indexing the federal gas tax to inflation, just to prove a point about the supposed necessity of using oil and gas drilling as a revenue source. Increasing, or at least indexing, the gas tax would appear be the simplest way to stabilize the highway trust fund while staying true(ish) to a “user pays/user benefits” principle, but it faces a mountain of political inertia. The last time the gas tax was raised was in 1993.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Obama Takes a Stand, Threatens to Veto House Transpo Bill

|
The White House issued a statement yesterday that spelled out President Obama’s opposition to the House transportation bill, also known as H.R. 7. The administration’s statement of policy, which coincided with the House Rules Committee hearing on H.R. 7, takes a stand in defense of transit, safety, and the environment: H.R. 7 does not reflect […]

Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on Columbia River Crossing Transit

|
From the beginning of today’s hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee made it clear they weren’t going to let Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last appearance before them be an easy one. While the hearing’s purpose was to examine the department’s budget request, the tough questions LaHood fielded on the budget were nothing compared to […]

Senators Hammer LaHood for Specifics on Funding His Transpo Plan

|
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood played defense – and dodgeball – this morning as members of the Senate Budget Committee grilled him on how he proposed to pay for the administration’s new transportation agenda. Secretary Ray LaHood indicates how many details he’s going to give Congress on how to fund the transportation budget proposal (Photo: AP) […]

Senate Set to Confirm LaHood as Transportation Secretary

|
Ray LaHood handles some softballs at his nomination hearing. Looks like Ray LaHood will sail toward an easy confirmation in the Senate. Members of the Transportation Committee were congratulating him before he opened his mouth at this afternoon’s nomination hearing, which just adjourned. Here are some bullet points: The livable communities plank in Obama’s campaign […]

LaHood Talks Budget: “Very Bright” Future for Infrastructure Fund

|
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today that he sees "very bright" prospects for congressional approval of the Obama administration’s $4 billion National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund, the new iteration of the long-discussed National Infrastructure Bank proposal. Transportation Secretary LaHood, at left, with the president. (Photo: NYT) "There is a great deal of interest in […]

What to Look For in President Obama’s Budget Request on Monday

|
On Valentine’s Day, President Obama’s heart-shaped box of chocolates to Congress will come in the form of his budget request for 2012. It will include the president’s proposal for a six-year transportation reauthorization. The FY2012 budget request comes as Congress is still wrangling over the budget for the rest of FY2011 (which, by the way, […]