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Will Cantor's loss push congressional Republicans to balk on transportation compromise?

Last night, US House majority leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary to a tea party challenger who painted Cantor as too willing to compromise with Democrats. Cantor's loss makes this summer's looming congressional fight over transportation funding all the more unpredictable.

US Highway Trust Fund balance. If Congress doesn't act soon, money will run out. Image from USDOT.

MAP-21, the federal transportation funding bill, expires in October. But the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) will begin running out of money in August. Without a bipartisan bill to add new money, federal transportation funding will trickle to a halt.

Transportation wasn't a major issue in Cantor's election, but immigration reform was. Cantor mostly opposed immigration reform, but he briefly contemplated compromise, giving his more conservative opponent David Brat an opening to attack.

Some pundits fear that will push every other House Republican away from compromise in general, and grind whatever progress Congress was making on anything to a halt.

From an immigration perspective that probably makes little difference; House Republicans were not going to compromise anyway. But it could make a huge difference for transportation.

Transportation funding was a non-partisan issue in the 20th Century. Every six years Congress would pass a transportation bill with broad support from both parties. But in recent years, amid declining gas tax revenue and increasing need for supplemental funding, transportation has become a partisan spark.

Congress seemed primed to act, but now it's an open question

Up until Cantor's defeat, the general assumption in the transportation world has been that Congress would do something this summer. "Something" might mean a long term solution like a new bill and new taxes. Or it might mean a band-aid, like an extension of MAP-21 with an infusion of federal general fund dollars. Either way, Congress appeared to be making some progress.

But now? House Republicans might very well cease all legislative activity, and hope to ride out the rest of election season without upsetting their conservative base.

Polls show that raising money for transportation is popular, and voters rarely punish officials for doing so. But that may not matter to Republicans concerned about attacks from the extreme right.

While in Congress, Cantor fought against progressive transportation funding. But in this case his personal vote, and even his leadership on the specifics, might be less important than the simple fact that he was probably willing to advance a bill.

On the other hand, maybe the Republican establishment will take this as a call to arms, and moderate legislators will become more powerful. But that seems unlikely the day after the biggest tea party victory of the season.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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Well if the Democrat wins that may be a good signal to republicans that that if they can keep their party in check then they'll find success in general elections.

by drumz on Jun 11, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Is it possible that Cantor's defeat will actually help advance a bill? It may scare other Republican House members or leaders from compromising; but maybe Cantor himself will be willing to allow something through, now that he has nothing to lose personally.

by Nick on Jun 11, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

This certainly makes it harder to get anything passed, but it also may mean that what finally passes will be less bad. If fewer Republicans are willing to vote for anything that could get enacted, more Democratic votes will be needed to pass anything. Urban Democrats will be in a stronger position to insist on concessions to their interests.

by Ben Ross on Jun 11, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

It might encourage more compromise. This Tea Partier's victory will hopefully highlight the radicalism and intransigence of the far right that's keeping so many common sense solutions at bay. Sometimes you need to fall all the way down before you can start to go up, unfortunatley.

by Thayer-D on Jun 11, 2014 1:34 pm • linkreport

Actually, I thought the compromise was a tax holiday on overseas cash for roads.

by charlie on Jun 11, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

Somewhat related...where the House GOP and the White House were peddling competing proposals on the Highway Trust Fund yesterday:

Lots of folks unhappy with the GOP proposal, which would cut Saturday mail delivery and divert that $15B to transportation.

One choice comment in particular, from Rep John Fleming (R-LA), who thinks bike lane and park funding should be cut first before Saturday mail delivery.

Of course, it all may be moot now. With Cantor's demise, I find it highly doubtful that the House will have the gumption to save transportation funding before November, let alone before August.

by Froggie on Jun 11, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

Even Tea Partiers want to drive their precious single occupant vehicles, so in the end they will agree to some sort of transportation...err...road funding. They still need roads they can drive on :-)

by Dave on Jun 11, 2014 9:19 pm • linkreport

Without a bipartisan bill to add new money, federal transportation funding will trickle to a halt.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. Without a new bill, spending will have to be cut by about 20-25%, to match revenues. That would be enough to stop new projects and cause a recession in the road construction industry.

by JimT on Jun 11, 2014 11:01 pm • linkreport


It would also be pretty devastating for transit.

by MLD on Jun 12, 2014 8:47 am • linkreport

@MLD: Aside from stopping new projects, what do you think the impact would be? That is, can you explain how it works with regards to authorizations, invoices, etc. For example, is DOT able to pay invoices as they come in?

by JimT on Jun 12, 2014 9:23 am • linkreport

It is unclear whether they would be able to pay invoices as they come in. The law says they have to dole out money according to a certain formula - it's unclear whether they can just do first come, first serve.

Plenty of trust fund dollars on the transit side are used for preventative maintenance. So that would affect operations if money were no longer flowing. Also smaller systems and systems in smaller urban areas can use federal dollars directly for operating expenses.

by MLD on Jun 12, 2014 10:55 am • linkreport

I think that in some jurisdictions--not sure about the US--every year the appropriations law allows the trust fund to spend what is in the trust fund plus the revenues from that year, so spending would just get held up until the next fiscal year begins, at which point the spigot reopens and if one is prudent about not starting anything new, then whatever if already ongoing can continue.

I certainly don't mean to minimize this, since it would probably delay the Purple Line.

by JimT on Jun 12, 2014 11:22 pm • linkreport

For the Purple Line and other new rail and bus rapid transit projects which use Federal New Starts and Small Starts funding, please know this - Since 2005, the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund has used general funds. This means that Congress has directed deficit spending for the New Starts grants.

Please ask yourself whether you desire that the nation increase its debt for a subregional rail line.

by John on Jul 2, 2014 10:20 am • linkreport

@John Uh, yes. National debt is an utterly meaningless number and the hysteria over it is ridiculous.

by Low Headways on Jul 2, 2014 5:27 pm • linkreport

Low Headways,
National debt and deficit spending eventually affects international finance and a country's well-being. Recent cases are Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland.

by John on Jul 3, 2014 7:10 am • linkreport

That is not in fact what happened in Spain or Ireland. Spain was fiscally responsible. It was the real estate/banking collapse. The deficits followed.

The larger problem was the single currency, which encouraged major capital flows into those countries, yet prevented them from adjusting later by changing exchange rates.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 3, 2014 8:54 am • linkreport

Thanks for the clarification on Spain and Ireland. The international financial markets will, in time, question the nation's ability to pay its increasing debt. As I recall, the rating agencies foresaw a need for a $4 trillion reduction over ten years in the nation's spending. Congress, however, was only able to identify $2 trillion.

by John on Jul 3, 2014 9:21 am • linkreport

The international financial markets are likely to worry more about the ratio of debt to GDP. Debt to GDP will have an impact over time, though there is no magic level where it kicks in (that is what the debate about the Rogoff paper was all about, BTW)

In the long run we likely need to address SS and Medicare expenditures. There is evidence that the ACA is already having an impact on health care costs. the issues with medicare and esp SS are heavily dependent on assumptions about demographics, and labor force participation by the elderly. Its by no means certain that things will be as bad as the consensus forecasts. If they are there are many ways to address them, from changes in SS taxes (in particular raising the cap) to limits on benefits. Taking a deficit hawk approach to the general fund now, when we still have high UE, is probably not the optimal policy.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 3, 2014 9:36 am • linkreport

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