Over the past year, many Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have indicated support for dramatic deficit reduction. So far, this exercise has resulted in lots of talk but no real action. In fact, despite a national debt of $15 trillion and multiple failures to enact any significant legislation to address it, the Senate continues to pass the same fiscally irresponsible legislation that created our massive deficit problem.
Last March, I joined 64 of my Senate colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, in a letter to President Obama pledging our support for the kind of serious, comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit set forth by the Simpson-Bowles commission. Six months later, after the Budget Control Act was passed, 45 Democratic and Republican senators joined again in calling for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (commonly known as the “supercommittee”) to “go big” and to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, neither of those calls for action produced real results. But members were on record in support of a combined strategy that overhauls the tax code, reforms Social Security and Medicare, and cuts discretionary spending.
Now, the Senate is considering a two-year federal highway reauthorization bill, and as astounding as it sounds in light of all the rhetoric, the bill does not correct serious flaws in our infrastructure financing. Sadly, this bill simply kicks the can down the road, making it harder to implement the kind of deficit reduction plan for which so many in the Senate expressed support multiple times in this session. A version of the highway bill considered last month in the House of Representatives was built on a similar flawed funding mechanism.
Enacting a long-term highway bill and investing in our nation’s infrastructure are key elements for economic growth. Congress established the highway trust fund in 1956 to finance the interstate highway system through a federal fuel tax. But in recent years highway spending has outpaced gasoline tax revenue and balances in the trust fund. Three times since 2008 Congress has transferred money from the general fund to the highway trust fund, a total of $34.5 billion, only delaying a necessary solution and adding to our deficit to cover the difference.
The bill before the Senate spends more than we can afford by financing two years’ worth of costs over as many as 10 years. In two years, the trust fund will still be insolvent, requiring us to fill the gap with billions more to support even current funding levels. And as the years go by, that gap will continue to grow, digging the hole even deeper. Republicans justifiably cried foul when President Obama’s health-care law used 10 years’ worth of revenue to cover six years’ worth of costs. I know many Democrats had similar concerns. So how can we now be part of a more aggressive effort to use a similar gimmick to fund this highway bill?
This week the Senate has an opportunity with the highway bill to stop a costly pattern of denial and evasion. We must be honest with the American people and find a way to align highway trust fund revenue with responsible spending so that they meet our country’s infrastructure needs without adding to the deficit.
Accordingly, I have offered two options for restoring sound financing to this bill. The first would lower spending in the bill to a level the highway trust fund can support annually. The second would require Congress to fully offset any additional expense over the two-year reauthorization period through reductions in other programs.
These alternatives will require the kind of tough choices many Americans make every day. We can either spend less on highways or we can spend less on something else. For Congress to spend more than it is taking in is not rational and would demonstrate that neither party is ready to lead.
The highway bill, which involves far less money each year than the Social Security and Medicare programs, is an important test of our stated bipartisan goal to put our country back on a sustainable fiscal path. The current bill takes us in the opposite direction. Federal highway infrastructure funding shares wide support in Congress and throughout the country, so members should set priorities and fund them with the resources that are available.
If we fail this small test, how will we ever pass a sweeping agreement to cut the deficit and avoid what Erskine Bowles called “the most predictable economic crisis in history”?