If you dismissed as a political stunt House Speaker John Boehner's suggestion to fund a highway bill with expanded drilling, as I did, you and I both missed a critical development in Republicans' thinking on transportation. House Republicans now believe that current federal spending levels for roads, bridges, and runways are an appropriate use taxpayer dollars. In practical terms, that means they will accept a six-year, $300 billion surface transportation measure as long as the spending is offset. Leaving the critical pay-for problem aside for the moment, Boehner's proposal signals two important things--it marks a departure from Republicans' standard "cut government" party line, and it offers the most specific statement to date from House GOP leaders on how infrastructure fits into their governing philosophy.
Boehner's remarks in September at the Economic Club of Washington were a deliberate concession, according to House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla. Boehner's idea removed the "primary obstacle" to a six-year surface transportation bill--a proposed one-third cut to highway spending, Mica said last week. Democrats, as well as people in the business and transportation communities, found that cutback untenable.
The big problem, as we all know, is how to pay for highway and transit costs at current levels. Boehner's idea to use revenue from expanded domestic oil and gas drilling is not politically viable today. Few other options exist, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is finding out in his attempt to come up with a mere $12 billion to fund a two-year highway bill. The six-year House bill, by contrast, is $75 billion to $100 billion short. The best way to read Boehner's proposal on drilling, then, is as a campaign promise for Republican voters (and more importantly, donors) who are angling for a sweep in next year's elections: Give us the Senate and the White House, and we'll give you drilling and a fully funded highway bill.
Is Boehner right that there is a "natural link" between new sources of domestic oil and a modern infrastructure? What separates the transportation and energy sectors, politically and policy-wise? Even if new domestic drilling doesn't happen, is it possible to draw on other revenue from the energy industry to pay for our highways? Where else can we find $100 billion? How seriously can we take Boehner's concession on highway spending levels if it doesn't come with a realistic offset?