Just four months ago, the country was hailing a bipartisan budget deal negotiated by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray and her House counterpart, Paul Ryan. It was a respite from the deeply partisan posturing over spending that has gridlocked Washington for years. Even better, it was a two-year budget resolution, meaning it seemed the next fight would be a long way off.
Not long enough.
Ryan didn’t have to release a budget this year, but as USA Today reports, “Republicans have long emphasized the importance of outlining the party’s philosophical priorities, even if [it] stands no chance of becoming law.” In an election year, Ryan appears eager to play up his deficit hawk bona fides and put his cooperative work with Democrats behind him.
No one could accuse Ryan of cozying up to Democrats this time around.
“This proposal takes a partisan jackhammer to our transportation infrastructure at a time when we need to be working together to find ways to rebuild it,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, in a statement. “This is budget déjà vu. Just like last year, this proposal is another road to ruin, not a ‘path to prosperity.’”
While this week’s budget plan technically fits within the broad outlines of December’s bipartisan agreement, the details Ryan fills in would never have been passed by the Senate or signed by Obama.
Ryan acknowledges that “efforts need to be made to find a long-term solution to the [highway] trust fund’s financial challenges,” and asserts that he places a priority on keeping it funded with user fees. But he has never supported a gas tax increase, and he doesn’t do so here. Instead, Ryan merely slashes spending — the same unimaginative and destructive plan Rep. John Mica had a few years ago that was booed off the stage.
According to Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, Ryan’s new plan would cut surface transportation funding by $172 billion over the next 10 years.
Ryan also attempts to close the “loophole” that allows Congress to transfer general fund money over to the highway trust fund without recording it as deficit spending. This would require any future transfers to be “fully offset,” making them far harder to pass. While it’s indisputable that general-fund transfers aren’t the stuff of a sound transportation funding policy, and that, as Ryan says, “Congress needs to address the systemic factors that have been driving the trust fund’s bankruptcy,” closing off an emergency option while proposing no responsible funding sources is just dangerous.
But perhaps the most headline-grabbing item in his plan is the mention of eliminating support for Amtrak. That’s right — not reduction, elimination.
“Buried deep in the pages of Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed 2015 federal budget today is a murder,” Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Richard Harnish said in a statement. “The victim of this crime is Amtrak, the nation’s federally supported railway system.”
To be fair, the Amtrak proposal is listed as an “Illustrative Policy Option,” not an essential pillar of the plan. But Ryan says that “the 1997 Amtrak authorization law required Amtrak to operate free of subsidies by 2002,” and he’s clearly getting impatient for Amtrak to make “the structural reforms necessary to start producing returns.”
In a statement, the National Association of Rail Passengers stressed the effectiveness of federal support for intercity rail. “Amtrak’s total federal grant only accounts for 0.037 percent of the budget, yet provides a critical role in providing mobility for scores of millions of passengers through its intercity and commuter operations,” said NARP Vice President Sean Jeans-Gail. “This is in no way a serious deficit reduction measure.”
Though the budget proposal stands no chance of passage, the House plans to spend the next two weeks debating it, as a platform for showcasing the Republican ideological zeal for cutting programs that vast numbers of Americans rely on.