On Sept. 15, one of the all-time baseball greats, Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, died at the age of 90. Although he was an 18-time All-Star and one of only five players to win the American League MVP award three times, he was best known for what The New York Times called his "unwittingly witty epigrams." One of my favorites is, "It's like déjà vu all over again," which I have chosen as the title of this column. Apparently, it is a favorite of Congress as well, although in this case, it's more like "déjà vu all over again, and again, and again."
In a recent column, Mitch Mac Donald discussed the curious lack of outrage about Congress's failure to reauthorize highway and mass-transit funding at a time when almost anything can trigger public fury ("Misdirected anger," Outbound, September 2015). The question of how to fund maintenance and repairs for the nation's infrastructure is a serious problem, and it's one that Congress seems unwilling or unable to resolve. While this is not intended to be a political column and I'm not looking to place blame on either side of the political aisle, I do claim to be—maybe not angry—but interested, frustrated, confused, and appalled. It is incredible to me that there have been 34 short-term highway funding extensions since 2009. If it keeps kicking that can down the road, Congress will have to buy a new can.
I'm not alone. House Speaker John Boehner became so exasperated in his role that he decided not just to step down from his post but to exit Congress altogether. A large segment of the American public has become so frustrated with our political leaders that they've thrown their support behind an egomaniac with bad hair, who is now the front-running Republican presidential candidate. (Their concerns, of course, are not necessarily about highway funding, which is just one item on a long list of as-yet-unresolved issues.)
Even the commander in chief is fed up. Just before Congress adjourned for its August recess, the Senate passed a six-year highway bill, but the House dropped the ball, serving up a three-month $8 billion stop-gap extension that's due to expire on Oct. 29. When signing the extension, President Obama got a little testy, saying, "We can't keep on funding transportation by the seat of our pants."
So as I write this, we are less than 30 days away from what will probably be the 35th kick of the can. The House should be pulling out all stops to work out an agreement with the Senate on a new six-year bill. What do you think the chances of that are?
As recently as Sept. 10, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said the House would likely move ahead with a short-term funding extension. He went on to say it would take several months to negotiate a final bill. Since then, however, Congress has been sidetracked by a number of pressing issues—such as electing a new speaker, sorting out Planned Parenthood funding, and keeping the government from shutting down—making passage of a long-term bill before Oct. 29 unlikely. Most of the public won't think much about it, even though they should. But highways do not get the masses riled up the way, say, immigration, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, tax reform, and Hillary's e-mail do, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
There is a bit of good news in all this. Due to Congress's failure to act, a number of states have moved ahead with fuel tax increases and other methods of funding new roads. As a result, the Department of Transportation has said it has enough money in the Highway Trust Fund to last until July 2016. By that time, however, it will be too close to the election to make a decision of any kind. Want to go for 36? In the words of Yogi, "The future ain't what it used to be."