• A bridge too far
    July 17,2014

    If further evidence were needed showing the breakdown of the federal government, the stalemate over rapidly dwindling transportation funding would be it. The House has passed a lame stopgap measure that would provide transportation funding for another six months through budget gimmicks that ought to be an embarrassment to any respectable member of Congress.

    It’s not an overstatement to call it a breakdown of government. Even a responsibility as fundamental as the maintenance of the nation’s roads and bridges has proven to be beyond the capacity of Congress to handle. And it is not a breakdown by accident. Rather, it has been intentionally engineered by ideological conservatives whose purpose is to wreck the government itself.

    The problem is not complicated. The federal Highway Trust Fund relies on the federal gasoline tax for its revenue, and that tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Several things have happened in the past 21 years. Inflation has caused the cost of road building to rise, and more efficient vehicles have caused motorists to use less fuel than they otherwise might have. So if new money is not found, the trust fund will run out Aug. 1.

    Rep. Peter Welch supports a plan to add a dime to the gasoline tax, which is a common-sense response to the problem. Not only would the new tax provide revenue to fix our roads, but higher taxes on fuel would reduce consumption. It has long been argued that what the nation needs is a new gas tax of $1 or more to combat the emission of carbon dioxide.

    Republicans, however, have become rigidly committed to an ideology dictating opposition to any new tax — no matter the circumstances. Keeping up with inflation? It doesn’t matter. Crumbling infrastructure? Find the money somewhere else. And because Republicans hold a majority in the House, they have the power to cripple the government’s ability to do one of its most basic jobs.

    The stopgap measure the House passed is risible. It comes up with revenue not in an honest, straightforward manner, but through sleight of hand. It allows businesses to put off payments to their pension plans, which would require them to pay higher taxes now, while addressing their pension obligations later. So instead of encouraging responsible fulfillment of pension obligations, the bill actually encourages irresponsible procrastination — the kind of irresponsibility pioneered by governments that have gone bankrupt. Congress has become a friend of the grasshopper rather than the ant.

    Hard-core conservatives say they oppose new money for the highway fund because they think the federal government ought to get out of the business of road building altogether — as if a city or the state of Vermont is not already shouldering a considerable tax burden and can easily come up with the cash for the 100 projects around the state now in jeopardy.

    The real purpose of conservative ideologues is to carry out their primary mission: to starve the beast. That is the phrase used to describe their intention to cripple the federal government by starving it of revenue. That way the government’s capacity to build, regulate and enforce the law will be scaled back, leaving criminal bankers, corporate polluters and other malefactors free rein to go about their business unmolested.

    Wouldn’t it be gratifying if instead of viewing the government as a beast, our leaders viewed it as an expression of the people’s will, committed to performing those critical public functions — building roads, educating children, underwriting innovation and research — in a spirit of public service. This summer, however, we are saddled with the government we have, rather than the government we would like. Maybe crumbling bridges will be replaced on time. But maybe not.

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