EDITORIAL: A shot in the dark?

June 5, 2015

Instead of playing basketball, Congress sits on hands

My head is not throbbing right now, but it needs to be.

The stomach is calm and content, when it should be on the brink of an acid eruption. My throat is clear, but I’m waiting for a cough to nag my windpipe.

I’m about to write about the lack of federal funding for road and bridge construction, a subject I am absolutely sick of writing about. Industry associations always try and pitch the angle to me, and my subconscious sits there rolling its eyes in disgust. My words on this page simply do not have the strength to grip the neck of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., until they become light-headed enough to come to their senses. Yet here I am, feeling the need to talk about another funding extension which continues this dizzying merry-go-round that has been picking up circular speed for a decade now. OK, now I’m starting to feel a little queasy. 

The House and the Senate just passed a two-month addition to MAP-21, stretching this bill to July 31, when all life will be taken out of the Highway Trust Fund. The account will soon be overdrawn. The well will be a dust bowl.

I’ve heard a million anecdotes and about just as many quotes relating to the highway and bridge funding crisis since the last real multiyear bill was passed back in 2005 under President George W. Bush. The lawmakers who make the decisions for this country, for one reason or another, have treated the problem like it comes with a Surgeon General’s warning. Yet their severe lack of leadership and incompetence continues to nourish a cancer that has issued a death sentence to our nation’s roads and bridges. Phew, with that off my chest I think I am starting to feel just a tad bit better. 

I read an article not too long ago on how the expletives under the Capitol Dome moved tricky bills back in the day. They were called the 4 O’Clock Caucus. It was a mixed group of Congressmen and Senators that would play a game of pick-up basketball on a court in the sub-basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. Wearing uniforms with “Democrats” and “Republicans” stitched across the chest, the bill pushers would pound the hardwood in front of the same size crowd you would expect to see at a middle school basketball game. In between all the jump shots and middle-aged moves, business wedged its way into the game—and deals got done. Former NBA All-Star and Senator Bill Bradley played with the hacks just once, and was able to pile up enough political points to get Congress to pass the last tax reform bill. In 1991, House Speaker John Boehner, then a freshman domer, stood on the sidelines and puffed on cigarettes during timeouts. Magic Johnson even endorsed the activity by showing up to play. 

The court is dark and empty now, and Congress continues to launch bricks when it comes to working up the next multiyear highway bill. Perhaps they have found another sport to pocket support? I don’t think that’s the way it works anymore. On July 31, we are out of timeouts. There will not be the opportunity to pause, reflect, strategize and then resume play. What is troubling to me here is the effort that went into trying to find a way to make an extension last until the end of the year. The reason it was not possible was because not enough money could be generated to make such a move. State DOTs are mere spectators here, and many are starting to cancel their games across the country. Projects are either being delayed or wiped out completely, and the news does not appear to be making federal lawmakers sweat. In fact, they appear to be feeling pretty good about themselves. R&B

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