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Capitalizing on a new conference committee

By Ben Siegrist, OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs

As part of the deal to end the government shutdown in October, Congress created and then appointed a joint House and Senate Budget Conference Committee to address the vastly different budget and debt priorities separating Republicans and Democrats.

If you think this looks familiar, you’re not wrong. Over the past few years, both Senate and House leadership have relied on the fallback position of forming “joint committees” to solve big problems. While this may sound effective in theory, in reality those bipartisan, bicameral groups have often failed to live up to their billing.

Last year’s budget gang led to the current budget sequester, which put into place automatic spending cuts across the board for federal agencies and departments. There are certainly areas where the government could stand to trim the fat, but by allowing non-discriminatory cuts to take effect Congress has essentially neglected their role of deciding federal priorities.

Members of the House of Representatives like to point out that the power of the purse lies on their side of the Capitol. Unfortunately, over the past few years having that power simply means punting on big decisions and relying on the blame game until re-election. Every time Congress passes a continuing resolution, they forfeit the ability to actually determine federal outlays.

If there are priorities a member of Congress believes in, he or she should use the opportunity of a budget negotiation to fight for those. Sadly, in today’s political world, that battle is not being waged.

The conference committee that was recently established provides another opportunity for Congress to address necessary government spending concerns. And one of the most obvious and largest looming issues has to do with the Highway Trust Fund.

On its current course, the Trust Fund is due to run out of money in 2015 and fall much deeper into the red over the next decade. Further, current transportation department authorizations run only until Sept. 30, 2014. Unlike many of the other issues – social programs, entitlement spending, defense appropriations, etc. – that are on the agenda, transportation and infrastructure spending is one area that enjoys broad support and wide-ranging historical and economic significance.

As OOIDA’s Executive VP Todd Spencer likes to say, there are no Republican or Democratic roads or bridges. The need for infrastructure spending and an influx of federal funding on a large scale isn’t something that any member of Congress would dispute. Multiple government-backed and non-government industry studies have shown that our national infrastructure of roads, bridges, and freight facilities is dramatically outdated.

While Congress as a whole has continued to kick the issue down the road on broader investment, this latest panel presents a new and renewed opportunity to create much-needed and long required transportation investment. As they debate areas of the federal budget that should be altered and new funding mechanisms, these budget conferees have the chance to allocate dedicated funds to an integral sector of the economy. Freight movement, and accordingly infrastructure investment, is not only critical to the present state of the economy, but will be a key part of future economic development and competitiveness.

As this latest budget panel reviews options for leveling out federal spending and reducing the national debt, we in the OOIDA Washington office will continue to ring the bell about smart transportation projects and the dire need for smart infrastructure spending. We’ll continue making the case that a strong transportation system and quality roads lead to a successful economy. And we’ll keep reminding them that long-term outlays for multimodal infrastructure plans mean better and stronger businesses across the board.

A bipartisan panel of House and Senate members being assembled to solve a budget crisis is nothing new. But neither is the need for federal spending on basic government functions like good highways, reliable bridges, and an efficient national freight network.

Here’s hoping the latest version of a Congressional budget conference can hack through the partisanship looming over Washington and help solve a larger problem that’s been looming over the rest of the nation for a long time. LL