Turning Transportation Funding Upside-Down

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-MN) has released more than 100 pages of documents describing how he wants to run federal transportation programs over the next six years. He proposes to spend $500 billion on highways and transit, which is a huge increase over the $338 billion authorized for the last six years.

Congress authorizes federal transportation spending in six-year cycles. In 1956, when Congress created the Interstate Highway System, it dedicated gas taxes and other highway user fees exclusively to highways. But in the 1982 reauthorization, it began diverting a small amount of gas taxes to transit.

Today, about 20 percent of the federal gas taxes you pay go to subsidize transit, while the other 80 percent supposedly go for highways — though much of that is wasted in planning and earmarks. Nationally, highway subsidies — mostly at the local level — average about a penny per passenger mile, while transit subsidies — much from your federal gas tax — average more than 60 cents per passenger mile.

Since 1982, transit has received hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from highway users. Yet in 2008 — supposedly a boom year for transit because of high gas prices — per-capita transit ridership was lower than it was in 1990, though higher than in 2000.

Oberstar considers this to be a great success. Building on that “success,” he effectively wants to turn the formula around: 20 percent for highways and 80 percent for transit. The executive summary of his plan supposedly “provides $337.4 billion for highways.” But, in fact, only $100 billion of this is dedicated to highways; most of the rest is in “flexible funds” that states and cities can spend on either highways or transit. Nearly $100 billion goes for transit, and $50 billion goes for high-speed rail. The remaining $12.4 billion goes for safety programs.

Oberstar’s detailed plan proposes to burden the Federal Highway Administration with an “Office of Livability.” This office would oversee land-use plans that all major metropolitan areas would be required to write; these plans would attempt to coerce people out of their cars by increasing population densities, spending flexible funds on transit, and spending highway money on reducing, rather than increasing, road capacities.

Page 38 explains that this is because past transit investments have “paid off” so well: transit carried 10.7 billion trips in 2008. The fact that this represents less than 1 percent of passenger transport is discreetly overlooked, especially by transit advocates who think they should get at least half of all transportation dollars.

For those who truly care about mobility, the saving grace is that the government is running out of money and cannot possibly afford Oberstar’s program. Even the Highway Trust Fund has run dry because the last reauthorization allowed Congress to spend more money than the revenues produced from gas taxes. Considering that President Obama is opposed to increasing the gas tax, no one has any idea where Oberstar thinks he is going to find $500 billion.

As a result, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on behalf of the Obama administration, wants to delay reauthorization for 18 months. Of course, Oberstar thinks this is a bad idea — it delays his moment in the sun, possibly until a time when he no longer chairs the committee.

The real problem, however, is that most people in Congress and the administration no longer see the value in funding transportation out of receipts or any connection at all between benefits and costs. Instead, it is just a big game of pork barrel and, for the slightly more idealistic, social engineering. All this lends credence to the idea that we should simply privatize our highways and transit systems.

Howard Baker and Universal Coverage

Add former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN) to the Church of Universal Coverage faithful:

Health care reform and universal coverage is [sic] indeed something [sic] whose time has [sic] come.

Baker joined fellow former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Bob Dole (R-KS) to introduce a health care reform package.  Daschle is already a high priest in The Church.  For backing this proposal, Dole probably is too, but I don’t have any juicy quotes handy.

Good Policy and Strategy in NJ

Chris Christie, the Republican candidate in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race this year, has some life in him. He’s going to hit incumbent Jon Corzine hard on the education issue and is making urban education reform and private school choice a central part of his platform.

Some highlights on Christie from the NYT:

He’s white, he’s conservative, and his support is strongest in New Jersey’s suburbs, where the public schools include some of the nation’s best.

Yet Christopher J. Christie, the Republican candidate for governor, is hunting for votes in cities like Newark, Camden and Trenton, where Democrats routinely pile up big margins, but where black and Hispanic parents are increasingly running out of patience with the public schools, among the nation’s worst…

But what could emerge as the sleeper issue is Mr. Christie’s push for education reform: merit pay for teachers, more charter schools, and above all, [education tax credits] as a way to give poor and minority children better educational choices and create competition that would improve the public schools…

Mr. Christie said that he did not expect to carry any heavily Democratic cities. But he is gambling that school choice has become popular enough among urban blacks and Latinos that he can cut into their support for Mr. Corzine, who opposes it.

Just a note: The article talks primarily about “vouchers,” but the private school choice plan being pushed there is a donation tax credit program. Reporters have difficulty with the distinction.

The UN Can’t Even Promote Health

When people ask if the United Nations can serve any useful role, I find myself mumbling that maybe it can do some good on issues with cross-border impact, such as aiding refugees and improving health care. However, I always add, the record has not been good even there.

Now even the UN is admitting that it is hard to demonstrate that it has done any good on health care despite spending billions of dollars collected largely from American and other Western taxpayers.

Reports the Associated Press:

In the last two decades, the world has spent more than $20 billion trying to save people from death and disease in poor countries.

UPDATE: The AP has made a correction to their original story that reported the UN had spent $20 billion on health care programs. They meant to say nearly $200 billion:

LONDON (AP) — In the last two decades, the world has spent more than $196 billion trying to save people from death and disease in poor countries.

But just what the world’s gotten for its money isn’t clear, according to two studies published Friday in the medical journal Lancet.

Millions of people are now protected against diseases like yellow fever, sleeping under anti-malaria bed nets and taking AIDS drugs. Much beyond that, it’s tough to gauge the effectiveness of pricey programs led by the United Nations and its partners, and in some cases, big spending may even be counterproductive, the studies say.

I’m thinking of changing my answer the next time I’m asked if the UN has any positive roles to a simple and emphatic “no.”

Cooperating against the Censors

One of the consequences of governments attempting to crack down on dissent is increasing cooperation among groups in different countries pushing for greater liberty and human rights.  For instance, some of the most important aid for Iranian protesters is coming from Chinese dissidents.

Reports Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”

The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.

The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.

Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.

“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”

Unfortunately, the struggle against government repression remains a difficult one.  But the development of a global human rights community with members willing to help each other wherever they are is an extremely positive sign.

You’re for Fair Competition, You Say?

Len Nichols is the top health-policy guy at the New America Foundation.  He’s spent the past few months trying to negotiate a compromise between the Left and the far Left over the creation of a new government health insurance program that would compete with private insurers.  With John Bertko, Nichols wrote a paper on how to create a level playing field between a government program and private insurance.

Yesterday’s CongressDailyAM, however, had an interesting article that sheds light on Nichols’ sense of fair play.  According to the article:

Nichols has floated the idea of writing into law a requirement that certain changes to the system would require a two-thirds vote to pass rather than a simple majority.

Never mind that such a requirement would guarantee that the new program would breed even more stagnation and death than Medicare and Medicaid do.

What Nichols proposes is that a Democratic Congress should be able to create a new Fannie Med by a simple majority vote in each chamber, but if a subsequent (Republican?) Congress wanted to repeal it, they should face a higher bar.

Keep that in mind when you hear talk about a level playing field.

The Politics of the REAL ID Revival Bill

In an earlier post, I catalogued the essential similarity between our nation’s failing national ID law - the REAL ID Act - and a bill called “PASS ID,” which essentially seeks to revive it. PASS ID is REAL ID with a different name.

Now let’s take a look at the politics around the national ID, and what caused Senators who were wary of the national ID to turn around and support it.

A year ago, this was the scene: The May 2008 deadline for compliance with REAL ID had passed - not a single state was fully compliant, and many states had passed laws barring their own participation.

Despite a great deal of saber-rattling about holding up American travelers at airports, the Department of Homeland Security had capitulated and given every state an extension - even states that refused to ask for them.

In the House and Senate, legislation was pending to repeal REAL ID and restore the identification security provisions from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. Senate sponsors included Patrick Leahy (D-VT), whose hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee had exposed flaws in REAL ID, and Jon Tester and Max Baucus (both D-MT) whose state had been one of the national ID’s most vociferous opponents.

REAL ID was dead, and the only thing preventing Congress from making it official was a Republican administration and Department of Homeland Security secretary eager to demagogue the issue. They would paint movement of a repeal bill as a Democratic Congress going “soft on terrorism.”

Voters were weary of that approach to national security, and in the election that fall they chose a president well outside the terror-warrior mode. He was a Democrat, of course, and both the House and Senate saw Democratic pick-ups as well.

Over the course of 2008 and into early 2009, no new arguments for having a national ID surfaced - good or bad. The weakness of using a national ID system to control terrorism was understood by every serious student of the issue. And putting law-abiding American citizens into a national ID system was anathema even to many hard-line opponents of illegal immigration.

Repealing REAL ID in the 111th Congress would have presented little trouble. Simply letting it lie fallow would have been a politically safer near-equivalent. Sometime in 2009, Secretary Napolitano would simply have had to give out wholesale deadline extensions, as her predecessor had done just the year before. (These things are all still true, of course.)

In short, there was no substantive argument for reviving REAL ID, the political impediments to repealing it had weakened, and simply letting it fade away was an easy option too.

But while all the stars aligned for repeal (or continued rigor mortis), one cloud came across the sky: State lobbying groups, the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures found in REAL ID an opportunity to gain influence. (Or perhaps it was just the lobbyists within those groups.)

If REAL ID were to move forward, and if they could make a plausible case that the federal government would fund it, the state lobbies would cement their role as supplicants in Congress for their “clients,” the governors and legislatures. They would have a permanent job begging Congress for money and managing federal control of state driver licensing policy.

They went to work. In meetings and telephone conversations with Senate staff, they spun the story that REAL ID was not going away. The “political reality,” they said, was that there was going to be a national ID program. The responsible thing to do, then, was to round down REAL ID’s sharpest edges - and free up those federal funds.

In exchange, the state lobby groups would wear down opposition from the nation’s governors and legislatures. If they could broker the sale of state authority over driver licensing to the federal government, they would lock in their role as lobbyists for the states on that issue.

Compromise is catnip in Washington, D.C. And staffers for Senators who had opposed REAL ID convinced themselves and their bosses that introducing a new version of REAL ID with a different name was a grand bargain.

Senator Akaka (D-HI), whose committee hearings had revealed the weakness of REAL ID, sponsored the new REAL ID bill. Senators Leahy, Tester, and Baucus switched their positions on having a national ID. And they were joined by Senators Carper (D-DE) and Voinovich (OH), a token Republican. The PASS Act was born - the old REAL ID law with a new name.

And a grand bargain it may be. The states and the federal government may just unite to corral the American people into a national ID system.

With its huge tax revenues - and willingness to borrow on the credit of future generations - the federal government may put up the tens of billions of dollars it takes to fund the national ID system. The states will get to grow their driver licensing bureaucracies, even though they lose power to decide what their driver licensing bureaus do. NGA and NCSL - the real winners - lock in their lobbying business.

This is not the kind of bargain our politicans and government are supposed to produce, though. The distinct roles that the Constitution sets out for the states and federal government are supposed to create conflict among them, not collaboration.

When governments get together, the result is not good for liberty. And the national ID system found in the “PASS ID Act” is not good for liberty. But that’s the politics of the REAL ID revival bill.