Kirk Untitled 1A Congress of Dunces

By Kirk Landers

Humorist P.J. O’Rourke once referred to the U.S. Congress as “A Parliament of Whores” in a book title, but to use that expression to describe the current Congress would be to grossly malign the world’s oldest profession.

This is a parliament of dunces and cowards. Confronted with profound legislative challenges, some have run and some have hid but all have abandoned ship.

The great Debt Ceiling Debate brought Congress’ ineptitude into focus for large numbers of Americans, but that is just one example of a body politic that substitutes divisive rhetoric for serious action. Much closer to home for those of us in the construction industry is the shameless ducking and dodging that has resulted in the decline of the federal transportation program at a time when we need it most.

Think about it. There is broad consensus on the right, left and center that America’s roads are in desperate need of upgrading. And there is broad consensus among economists that road construction work is one of the most effective ways we have of generating jobs and commerce. And with other segments of the construction industry locked into the fortunes of the general economy, road construction is the first best hope for nudging the moribund construction economy into life.

Yet we have not had a national transportation program since the pathetic SAFETEA-LU expired on September 30, 2009. Since then, there have been seven – seven! – short term extensions of the old program as both parties in Congress and the Obama Administration try to avoid the obvious: To have a meaningful highway program, we need to raise the fuel tax.

It is as though each of us has sent a crew to a construction site to perform a task, and each crew has come back to us saying they didn’t do the work but it’s not their fault.

The cost of Congressional inaction on a transportation bill goes well beyond the inadequacy of funding levels. State Departments of Transportation, faced with month-to-month uncertainty about the availability of federal funds, are reluctant to invest in long-term, high-cost road reconstruction work – the kind of work that generates the most jobs for the widest spectrum of construction firms.

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Needed work that could provide an important economic stimulus goes undone because we have a Congress that will not confront reality. In fairness, the last several Congresses have had the same streak of cowardice, but this is the one that is challenged to action by a dying economy.

When Congress returns to the capitol after Labor Day, members will have just over three weeks to pass a new transportation bill. There are two proposals floating on the Hill today and neither is likely to pass both houses and neither should. One would cut the highway program back to mid-1990s levels; the other would boost it for two years by adding money from general revenues. We are headed for another short-term extension, and more months of Congressional dithering.

It is as though each of us has sent a crew to a construction site to perform a task, and each crew has come back to us saying they didn’t do the work but it’s not their fault. The work conflicted with their principles, or it was immoral or there was something else that was more important.

You’d fire your crew on the spot, right? Me too. Spread the word.