12 U.S. DOT Secretaries Speak, But Won’t Agree on a “Fix”

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, July 28th, 2014

Innovation Newsbriefs
Vol. 25, No. 10

We reprint below a commentary by Gary Hoitsma, respected veteran editor of “The Washington Letter on Transportation” a publication of the Carmen Group (www.washingtonletter.com, July 21, 2014). The author comments on an open letter to Congress by 11 former Secretaries of Transportation from both parties urging lawmakers to approve increased funding for transportation for multiple years to come.
The opinions and sentiments expressed by Mr. Hoitsma mirror exactly our own. Specifically, to closely paraphrase the author, why won’t the 11 distinguished former Secretaries of Transportation make a single substantive recommendation on exactly how transportation funding should be increased? And if the Secretaries cannot reach a consensus on how to address the current funding crisis —or if they cannot muster the political courage to say what they really believe needs to be done—than how do we expect the 535 politicians on Capitol Hill to do it —especially in this politically charged pre-election season?
Mr. Hoitsma concludes that “What Congress needs is not so much the will to act, as it does the consensus substance of what exactly to act upon, and the leadership of officials in posts of responsibility and influence to provide vision, guidance and, to be, sure, political cover.” Exactly right!.
Kenneth Orski
Innovation NewsBriefs (celebrating our 25th year of publication)

(Editor’s Commentary by Gary Hoitsma)  Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has joined with 11 of his living predecessors from both parties in sending an open letter to Congress urging lawmakers to approve increased investments in transportation that are sustainable over the long term. The letter was clearly an attempt to prod Congress to put aside partisan bickering and forge a compromise consensus on a path forward to “fix” the Highway Trust Fund and make it solvent not just for a few months, but for many multiple years to come.  The full text of the letter can be found at http://www.dot.gov/briefing-room/open-letter-secretary-foxx-and-11-former-dot-secretaries-urging-congress-address-long.

“Adequately funding our transportation system won’t be an easy task for our nation’s lawmakers,” the DOT secretaries wrote.   “But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Consensus has been brokered before.  Until recently, Congress understood that, as America grows, so must our investments in transportation.  And for more than half a century, they voted for that principle – and increased funding – with broad, bipartisan majorities in both houses. We believe they can, and should, do so again.”

Signing the letter were the following current and former secretaries of transportation going back to the birth of the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1967:  Anthony Foxx and Ray LaHood (President Obama); Mary Peters and Norman Mineta (President Bush 43); Rodney Slater and Federico Pena (President Clinton); Samuel Skinner and Andrew Card (President Bush 41); James Burnley and Elizabeth Dole (President Reagan); William Coleman (President Ford); and Alan Boyd (President Johnson). 

The letter was evidently instigated by Secretary Foxx as part of his continuing campaign to  try to put the onus on Congress alone to provide the leadership necessary to forge a consensus on transportation funding, something which the Administration has clearly not been able, or willing, to do.

The letter cites past six-year authorization bills as the benchmark for the kind of “long-term” funding that is needed, and celebrates what it says is the hopeful notion that “some leaders in Washington, including those at the U.S. Department of Transportation, are stepping forward with ideas for paying for our roads, rails, and transit systems for the long-term.” But the letter does not even mention what any of those ideas are.

Well, since they brought it up, let’s mention again here the U.S. Department of Transportation’s one dead-on-arrival “idea”:  A 350-page four-year bill (not a six-year bill) (the so-called GROW AMERICA Act)  that includes in its text many provisions about new spending, but not a single word  on the funding arrangements that would be needed to pay for it.  Instead, the DOT has merely asserted that the bill assumes the concurrent passage of a separate bill to be entitled “corporate tax reform,” (for which there are no details or text to consider, but which we are told on faith will raise a one-time sum of $150 billion — not over four years, but over ten years).  Thus, far from being true long-term sustainable transportation funding, the idea amounts to another stop-gap General Fund transfer that is completely unsustainable over the very “long-term” that the combined secretaries describe in their letter.

Moreover, the secretaries’ letter lectures Congress on things like future growing transportation “challenges,” the problems with continuing short-term funding in “fits and starts,” and the need to find compromise and “consensus.”  But as one currently-running pop-culture commercial says: “Everybody knows that.” 

The 12 bipartisan secretaries allude in their letter to their combined experience stretching back over 35 years.  Indeed, they arguably have more institutional knowledge, experience and expertise in transportation funding than the whole current Congress combined. Their coming together at this moment also bespeaks to their above-the-fray non-partisanship and general collegiality. 

So the obvious question for them is:  Why can’t they, or why won’t they, make a single substantive consensus recommendation on exactly how transportation funding should be increased? What does their collective silence on this issue – which everyone also knows is the real crux of the matter at hand – say about where we are in the overall transportation funding conundrum?  If the 12 of them won’t agree, compromise and speak out on how sustainable funding should be achieved, how do they expect the 535 politicians on Capitol Hill to do it?

What Congress needs is not so much the will to act, as it does the consensus substance of what exactly to act upon, and the leadership of officials in posts of responsibility and influence to provide vision, guidance, and, to be sure, political cover.    The secretaries write that among themselves, they “differ on the details” of what to do.  Well, duh…  What do they think is really hampering the Congress?  If the secretaries cannot reach a consensus on how to address the current crisis – or if they cannot muster the political courage to say what they really believe needs to be done (individually or collectively) — then they might as well stay on the sidelines.  Their boilerplate letter does very little to help the Congress get out of the predicament it is in.   

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation Newsbriefs, now in its 25th year of publication.

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