Highway bill negotiators like Ike

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

A president’s name was on everyone’s lips last week after lawmakers finished work on a $105 billion transportation bill, but it wasn’t Barack Obama.

Instead, Democratic and Republican lawmakers involved in the painstaking negotiations over the first federal highway bill in seven years portrayed themselves as protectors of the legacy left by the 34th president, Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) boasted to his constituents that he passed “the most important transportation reform bill since Eisenhower” as he builds a case for reelection in a contested primary later this summer.

Not to be outdone, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) portrayed herself as the congressional defender of the transportation system that was created by the general-turned-president in the 1950s.

“On June 29, 1956 — exactly 56 years ago — President Dwight Eisenhower started us on a path to a national transportation system, and today we saved that system,” Boxer said in a statement after both chambers had passed the bill.

The transportation bill authorized $105 billion in spending on road and transit projects over the next two years. It was approved by wide margins in the House and Senate after months of contentious negotiations between the chambers.

Although both parties reached back to Eisenhower in praising the bill, they had different reasons for doing so.

Democrats cited Eisenhower in arguing that modern Republicans were obstinate for opposing their version of the transportation bill.

GOP lawmakers, on the other hand, compared Eisenhower unfavorably to President Obama, whom they said did not play a constructive role in the transportation talks.

Mica accused the Obama administration of pushing back against congressional transportation proposals without offering an alternative.

“I was most disappointed with the administration,” he told reporters after the votes to approve the transportation bill were secured.

“They threw me under the bus, but they also threw Mr. [James] Oberstar under the bus,” he said of the former Minnesota lawmaker. “The difference was [that] I got up, dusted myself off [and] tried to stand a little taller.

“This is the first administration … since Eisenhower that has had no transportation policy brought to the Congress,” Mica said of Obama. “He should be embarrassed.”

The White House largely kept a low profile during the transportation negotiations, though press secretary Jay Carney praised the end result.

“The president is pleased that Congress has finally reached a bipartisan agreement on the transportation bill that would put Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges and create thousands of jobs,” Carney said.

“There is still much more that Congress can do to put Americans back to work,” Carney continued. “But on the whole, going back to this bill, it’s a good bipartisan bill that will create jobs, strengthen our transportation system and grow our economy, and the president looks forward to signing it.”

Democrats focused on the fact that lawmakers averted another temporary extension. The highway bill that was supposed to expire in 2009 had been extended nine times, and was extended one last time on Friday, for a week, to give Obama time to sign the multi-year version.

Some transportation advocates, however, are less than enamored with the system of funding transportation with dwindling gas tax revenue that was put in place under Eisenhower and continued in the new legislation.

Revenue collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund, but as cars become more efficient, less money goes into the pot to fund road and transit projects. The gas tax, which has not been increased in 1993, brings in about $36 billion per year for transportation projects. The legislation approved last week by Congress will spend more than $50 billion each year.

“Though at the last possible second, we are pleased Congress has averted a shutdown, and the associated loss of jobs — but this is literally no way to run a railroad,” Washington, D.C.-based Transportation For America group said in a statement on agreement, which covers the shortfall through tax loopholes and fee increases.

“As the result of backroom maneuvering around election-year politics, the end result looks exactly like what it is: A stopgap representing the last gasp of a 20th century program that has run out of steam,” T4A continued.

Obama is expected to quickly sign the bill to avert an interruption in transportation funding.

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.



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