The Senate today passed a bill that would keep the federal Highway Trust Fund at it's current level for the next two years. In a recession, the fact that no money was cut from this fund is great, because the outlook was that this infrastructure spending would save or create in the neighborhood of 2.8 million U.S. jobs. Second only to education, infrastructure in my mind is the best way to spend our tax money. It creates jobs, makes for a more efficient system of transportation and information in America, and makes us more attractive to companies. Also, considering the fact that we have to maintain a minimum standard when it comes to our roads, rails, and runways, the spending on infrastructure projects is something that can be seen and felt by every American every day.
But not everyone is happy about this. Sen. Jim DeMint (R - S.C) decried the bill, saying it was a $13 billion bailout of the HTF. DeMint also said he believed highway funding for repairs and upgrades should be handled at the state level.
First of all, funding a federal program is not akin to a "bailout." It has been standard practice for a long time for Congress to give money to the HTF for its contract work. A "bailout" is something that the government or another organization does when they give money to a floundering business to keep it from shuttering its doors and cutting jobs. A "bailout" is pouring money into the coffers of a private business and telling them they have to keep operating. Funding the HTF, a fund of the US government, is not a bailout.
Second, DeMint is either dense or being deliberately misleading when he asserts that the states should have sole control over road construction, repair, and modification. DeMint claimed that the states could do the same job in less time for less money and do it better. I hate to break it to Sen. DeMint, but he's living in a fantasy world if he believes that. For one thing, states don't have that kind of money. They're hurting financially as it is. Then, once they have the money, they have to work with other state governments to design interstate systems. Remember, the federal government bankrolled and built the Interstate Highway System, not the states that the IHS passes through. The federal government is one big beuracracy. The states are a multitude of smaller ones. It would be utter chaos trying to figure out how to fund, maintain, construct, and operate roads across state lines without the federal government.
Finally, DeMint's comments underscore a kind of disconnect that has become very common in Washington lately. There seems to be a misconception about infrastructure spending, and what is worth the time and money. While Congress has been fighting over the Keystone pipeline, they killed a bill that would have funded national high-speed rail projects, an investment that would certainly create more jobs and make us more attractive to businesses. It seems as though some in Congress are keen to sweep infrastructure spending under the rug as a way to balance the budget, even though spending on infrastructure is one of the best tools we have at lowering unemployment. It strikes me as odd how the discussion will always switch between jobs, the economy, the budget, the deficit, the debt, jobs, etc. as if each of these things were mutually exclusive issues. They are all connected, however, and this new spending contract will help to bring all of them, and the rest of us, to a better place.