Shuster Pre-empts Devolutionists With Defense of Federal Role

New House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA) clearly knows he’s got some devolutionist conservatives in his caucus (and on his committee). While many Republicans would like to see the federal government get out of the business of infrastructure and just let the states raise and spend their own money, Shuster has always been clear that he is in favor of a strong federal role.

Before the session gets underway, Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster wants to make one thing clear. Photo: ##http://www.thepoliticalguide.com/Profiles/House/Pennsylvania/Bill_Shuster/##PoliGu##

He likes to remind conservatives that Adam Smith, the godfather of free-enterprise capitalism himself, argued that there were three essential functions of government–security, justice and transportation. He notes that many Republican presidents have overseen massive infrastructure expansion, and that the work continues.

So Shuster is devoting the first committee hearing of the session to clarifying his view that the work of the committee is not just to channel all decisions and funds down to the states. Before anything else — before anyone on the committee has a chance to undermine the very purpose of the committee — Shuster hopes to dispense with that entire line of argument.

So next Wednesday’s hearing, entitled “The Federal Role in America’s Infrastructure,” will give a platform to three of the most vocal advocates of increased federal infrastructure spending: U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, Building America’s Future Co-Chair and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terry O’Sullivan all have been invited to testify.

They’ll have a lot of minds to change. The lobby for devolution to the states is growing, and not just among conservatives. Rohit Aggarwala — former director of long-term panning and sustainability for New York City and now top advisor to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — made the same case a few weeks ago in a Bloomberg News op-ed.

“Every bipartisan commission that has studied the situation has advocated raising the [gas] tax, but a polarized Congress has been unable to do it,” Aggarwala wrote. “A strong, smart, well-funded federal program would be great. But if Congress can’t pass one now, it should just get itself out of the way, by eliminating the federal gas tax entirely and cutting Washington’s role in surface transportation. It would streamline government. And it would probably lead to more investment in infrastructure and greener transportation policies.”

Shuster and Aggarwala have flipped traditional roles, with the green sustainability leader now calling for Washington to get out of the transportation biz and the conservative rural Republican defending the importance of federal involvement.

  • Aggarwala’s opinion piece is definitely thought-provoking for those interested in protecting natural resources, especially in the wake of the sadly underwhelming legislative debate and outcome this past reauthorization cycle. Scaling back the federal role may not be such a bad idea, for fiscal and environmental reasons.

  • Nat Bottigheimer

    There’s definitely an argument to be made that local reliance on a challenging, oversubscribed New Start transit funding program is slowing down investment in transit projects, many of which could be justified on city/regional-level benefits alone.

    In an environment where Federal transit funding can’t be counted on, transit advocates  need to become more adept at making the kind of business case argument that Metro in Washington, DC recently made, that the Itasca Project in Minneapolis is making (with strong Chamber of Commerce backing) – and that Aggarwala is implicitly advocating.

  • David Goldberg

    Thought-provoking, but far too sanguine where transit is concerned. I’m afraid if we eliminated federal formula grants we’d see the state of repair of transit systems degrade at an even faster clip — or higher fares and more service cuts. It is true that federal dollars have a distorting effect where highways are concerned, because they pay 80 percent of just about anything some politician can dream up. But for transit they are the “hump” funds that make a project possible, and rarely pay for more than 50 percent and increasingly much less.

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