March 29, 2005

March 29, 2005 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of March 28th

An impassioned group of Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), has delivered an "Ides of March" ultimatum to their Republican colleagues, predicting dire consequences should Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) seek to revise Senate floor procedures in order to guarantee up-or-down votes on President Bush's embattled nominees to the federal bench.

In an angry letter to Frist, Reid denounced the strategy much-discussed among Senate Republicans to take away one of the most powerful tools available to the legislative minority--the filibuster--in the case of court nominations as "an unprecedented abuse of power." Arguing that "the power to confirm judges includes the right to use well-established Senate rules to reject nominees," Reid warned that, should Frist proceed, "the majority should not expect to receive cooperation from the minority in the conduct of Senate business."

Some press accounts have characterized Reid's threat as encompassing all Senate business, even on the most mundane procedural matters where the Senate can function only after Republican leaders secure "unanimous consent" agreements from the minority Democrats. Were this indeed the case, the Senate would quickly become a moribund institution. Spending bills, treaties, legislation and nominations all would fall by the wayside.

You may rejoice at the prospect of a dysfunctional Senate that cannot ratify flawed treaties, enact massive spending bills or further extend the reach of the federal government. But a close reading of Reid's letter will bring you back down to earth. "Of course," Reid assured Frist, "Democrats . . . will help ensure that critical government services continue to function for the American people." Translation: As emotionally distraught as the Democrats may yet become over the diminishment of the filibuster, they will bring the Senate to a halt only sparingly, i.e., when the business before the Senate is something they would have assaulted with filibusters, endless quorum calls and other stalling tactics, anyway.

On the Road Again

One bill expected to satisfy Reid's definition of legislation that provides "critical government services" is the highway bill. That's too bad, because federal surface transportation policy suffers greatly from the inability of members from both parties to resist the siren song of more federal transportation dollars. My Heritage colleague Ron Utt points out that, despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent on roads, tunnels, mass transit projects and bike trails over the last two decades, the amount of time the average traveler spends in delays has almost tripled, from 16 to 46 hours annually.

One reason federal transportation dollars don't seem to go very far is that Congress rarely misses an opportunity to designate portions of your gas taxes--estimated at $41 billion annually--to an ever-expanding list of other uses. Utt calculated that this trend reached unprecedented levels in the House version of the highway bill. That bill would siphon more than 40% of gas tax revenues (approximately $17 billion per year) to non-highway uses such as mass transit, biking and hiking programs, research centers, landscaping, transportation museums, river walks and an initiative to combat adolescent obesity.

With such a large proportion of gas tax revenue diverted to non-highway uses, it's no wonder that many members of Congress feel constrained by the President's insistence that federal surface transportation programs receive only as much as the federal gas tax generates--approximately $284 billion over the next six years. So far, both the House and Senate public works committees have complied with the President's request, but the Senate committee chairman, conservative stalwart Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.), previewed an effort to add as much as $34 billion on the Senate floor when he encouraged the President "to come up with a higher figure" and urged the Senate Finance Committee to devise "creative" ways to grow the revenues from the federal gas tax.

Sadly, the President's number itself is a rather dramatic increase from the bottom line that prevailed only a year ago. Then, the President won accolades from conservatives when he set the six-year figure at $256 billion and told Congress the final bill should satisfy three principles: There should be no increase in the gas tax or other federal taxes.

Funding shouldn't come through bonding "or other mechanisms that conceal the true cost to federal taxpayers."

Highway spending should be financed "from the Highway Trust Fund, not the General Fund of the Treasury." These laudable principles were absent from the message the President sent to Congress last month.

Though most of the attention has been on the size of the highway bill, some members have been busy devising creative alternatives to the current morass. Though relegated to the sidelines, it is worth acknowledging them nonetheless.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R.-N.J.) has introduced legislation to allow individual states to opt out of the federal highway program and its attendant regulatory burdens, take control of the federal gas taxes collected in their states and determine how the money is spent. Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) introduced a similar proposal in the last Congress. Finally, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R.-Minn.) has pushed hard for demonstration programs to encourage greater use of market incentives and the private sector in road construction and maintenance. 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events