From the beginning of today’s hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee made it clear they weren’t going to let Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last appearance before them be an easy one. While the hearing’s purpose was to examine the department’s budget request, the tough questions LaHood fielded on the budget were nothing compared to the fight one lawmaker picked about the Columbia River Crossing.
Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham derided the administration request for $50 billion for “immediate transportation investments” as “a proposal we’ve seen three times before” which, like the 2009 stimulus package, is “not paid for or offset by reductions elsewhere.” He dismissed the plan to pay for transportation with war savings as “dubious,” saying, “Many members hope that the drawdown of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide an opportunity to reduce spending and the deficit, and not serve as excuse for even more spending.”
LaHood told Latham he “can’t have it both ways.”
“The first two years I was in this job you all criticized us for not coming up with a way to fund transportation,” LaHood said. “For the last two years, after receiving criticism for the first two years, for no funding, we’ve come up with a funding mechanism.”
Even worse than defending a gimmicky pay-for, LaHood tied himself in knots promising the U.S. DOT “has never promoted building anything to get anywhere faster.” He defended this position when it came to the Columbia River Crossing in the Portland area, which Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler raked him over the coals for, and even for high-speed rail, which he pledged was not actually about increasing speeds. A weird position, indeed.
Latham noted that the administration budget proposal included $40 billion for rail and wondered when the administration might send over a draft proposal of the rail reauthorization those numbers are based on. He reminded LaHood that the administration never actually sent a draft surface transportation reauthorization.
LaHood tried to turn the tables on Latham, saying the president was busy with guns, immigration and the sequester, and when Congress does its work on those three issues, Obama will bring out his bold plans for transportation. LaHood has made this argument before, and it’s one I find perplexing. Isn’t that why there are Cabinet secretaries, with thousands of people working under them? No one at DOT is working on guns and immigration, but I bet someone there has a pretty good handle on their plans for the next rail bill.