Oberstar laments inability to advance highway bill
In a farewell meeting with reporters last week, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar said his biggest policy disappointment was not completing new surface transportation and aviation reauthorization bills, laying much of the blame for their stalemate on the Senate and some on President Obama. At the heart of the stalemate, he suggested, was the erosion of civic duty among lawmakers.
Rep. Oberstar, D-Minn., was upset in the Nov. 3 election by Republican Chip Cravaack after 36 years in the House.
Oberstar proposed a $450 billion, six-year transportation spending plan, plus another $50 billion for high-speed rail, before the existing plan expired Sept. 30, 2009. Oberstar favored raising the per-gallon gasoline and diesel tax to help plug the highway trust fund gap between state obligations for infrastructure needs and declining revenues in an era of fuel-efficient vehicles. But the Obama administration and the Senate objected to any gas tax increases while the nation was in the midst of a recession. President Obama had pledged during his presidential campaign that he wouldn't raise taxes on Americans earning less than $250,000.
'If I'd been the candidate, I would have phrased it differently,' Oberstar said during the press conference. Users have historically paid for the system, but the only champion for raising fuel taxes in the other chamber was Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, he pointed out.
Oberstar pushed for indexing the gas tax to inflation during debate on the SAFETEA-LU transportation plan that Congress approved in mid-2005, which would have resulted in an additional $89 billion for the highway trust fund had the Bush administration not insisted on a smaller package.
He was optimistic that the House would have passed the transportation bill drafted by his panel's Highways and Transit subcommittee last year, but added that the Senate was not motivated to move on transportation.
'As the year wore on and the Senate mounted 104 filibusters against House-passed bills, it became apparent that the Senate was simply a formula for gridlock and nothing was going to be accomplished there.
'That's a great regret,' he said.
In 1956, when President Eisenhower signed the law to create the Interstate Highway System, the user fee was 3 cents per gallon, or 10 percent of the 30-cent per gallon price for fuel. The House subsequently passed a 1-cent tax increase by voice vote to support the construction program's continuation.
'But you can't pass a prayer on a voice vote in the House anymore, and certainly not the Senate,' Oberstar lamented. 'There has been a deterioration of the greater good-of-all viewpoint that we had in the first Congress and that existed in 1956, and even in 1982' when President Ronald Reagan signed a 5-cent gas tax increase into law.
Another increase was enacted under President George Bush in 1990.
'So three Republican presidents supported increases in the user fee, but that apparently isn't good enough for today's Republicans, as a conference,' aside from support by some individual lawmakers, he said.
Oberstar has acknowledged that increasing the gas and diesel tax is a short-term solution until a transition to an alternative, dedicated source of funding is achieved.
The Minnesota congressman last week encouraged passage of a one-year highway and transit authorization bill during the lame duck session of Congress in lieu of a six-year plan under the circumstances as a better approach than multiple short-term extensions used to maintain transportation programs at their previous levels. The goal, he said, was to put the policy changes — such as streamlining Transportation Department programs, creating an Office of Intermodalism and a dedicated freight fund — in place until a new Congress could figure out how to finance the system.
The current surface transportation extension expires on Dec. 31.
Obama's recent request for an immediate $50 billion in spending for infrastructure in advance of a multi-year spending blueprint should be viewed as a good stimulus measure to create jobs from the general fund, but not as a substitute for a long-term authorization, Oberstar said.
With his departure, the House will lose a huge amount of institutional knowledge on transportation issues. Oberstar started as a clerk on a now-defunct rivers and harbors subcommittee in 1963 before running for office himself. From 1989 to 1995 he chaired the subcommittee on aviation. He became T&I chairman when Democrats took control of the House in 2007 after spending the previous dozen years as the ranking Democrat on the committee.
His absence will impact how Congress develops legislation because he worked closely with ranking Republican John Mica, who will take over the chairman's role in January, to mitigate differences and advance the Water Resources Development Act, an Amtrak bill and, on two occasions, an aviation authorization bill, that ultimately were supported by their respective party caucuses, Oberstar said.
'Going forward they will have to rebuild those personal relationships. So that may take time out of the legislative process,' he said, adding he could have played a useful role in balancing out the more conservative ideology that many new lawmakers are bringing to Capitol Hill.
The incoming politicians, he said, appear to have 'little appetite for, or appreciation of, the broader policy questions that the nation faces in transportation and absent ideas, the process itself will founder.'
Oberstar also expressed frustration that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid never followed through on passing a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, which got hung up on a controversial provision in the House version that would make it easier for FedEx workers to organize a union.
Asked about the next stage in his career, Oberstar said he planned to stay involved in the broad transportation policy debate, but 'you'll not see my name in any lobbying firm. That's as much as I know.' ' Eric Kulisch