» With Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as presumptive Republican nominee for Vice President, the GOP is taking a clear stand on where it wants to take government. The effects on national transportation policy could be tremendous.
As chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan has assumed a prominent role in the national dialogue since the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of 2011. His position there has allowed him to define the party’s position on the federal budget, the social welfare state, and, yes, even transportation. We can only assume that Mitt Romney’s decision to share the platform with Mr. Ryan implies an endorsement of the latter’s views — especially in terms of policies where Mr. Romney has not been specific.
What is obvious is that Mr. Ryan has a dramatically different view of the role of government than President Obama; indeed, his perspective on that which Washington should be concerned is a deep expression of the conservative movement’s success in pushing the GOP to the right.
In matters of transportation, this attitude would steadily decrease the role of the federal government in sponsoring infrastructure projects, especially those that cannot be sponsored entirely through user fees. It would discourage the consideration of negative externalities, such as pollution and congestion, in deciding what subsidies should be provided for alternative transportation — because its political ideology opposes government subsidies altogether. It would dismantle enforcement of federal environmental regulations, especially those that recognise climate change, and encourage the privatization of public services such as transit systems or parking meters. These are the very tangible implications of a Romney-Ryan presidency.
Mr. Romney’s platform provides no indication of his views on transportation or other urban issues. Though as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007 he was a moderate on these issues, Mr. Romney has has made no attempt to discuss them at length during the campaign other than saying that Amtrak should be privatised.* Mr. Ryan’s past actions, therefore, speak loudly.
We can best examine Mr. Ryan’s views by reviewing his voting record and analysing the budgets he proposed in his leadership position in the House.
On transportation, Mr. Ryan voted against every piece of transportation legislation proposed by Democrats when they controlled the lower chamber between 2007 and early 2010, with the exception of a bill subsidizing the automobile industry to the tune of $14 billion in loans in December 2008. This record included a vote against moving $8 billion into the highway trust fund in July 2008 (the overall vote was 387 to 37), a bill that was necessary to keep transportation funding at existing levels of investment. Meanwhile, he voted for a failed amendment that would have significantly cut back funding for Amtrak and voted against a widely popular bill that would expand grants for public transportation projects. He did vote in favor of the most recent transportation bill extension.
Mr. Ryan’s views on the future of government in general are evident in the budgets that he has prepared as head of the Budget Committee for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, neither of which have been implemented as they conflict with proposals from President Obama and the Democratic Senate. These budgets, which are founded on the principle that the U.S. government must shrink considerably, would alter the American safety net massively through a dismantlement of Medicaid by handing it out as block grants to states and a privatization of Medicare. An analysis of the budget by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 62% of budget cuts would come from programs that benefit low-income Americans. All this while providing the wealthy a huge tax break.
The biggest cuts of all, however, would go to “discretionary” elements of the budget, including defense and programs like transportation, which Mr. Ryan wants to keep to 3.75% of the GDP, down from about 12.5% today.** The consequences would be dramatic. This is how Mr. Ryan’s fiscal year 2012 budget describes the Republicans’ goals for transportation:
“This budget anticipates that Congress can keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent without additional general fund transfers or increases in the gasoline tax by consolidating dozens of separate highway programs that GAO has identiﬁed as duplicative. This will help focus every dollar on pursuing a targeted and cohesive national transportation policy.”
Translation: All Department of Transportation programs that are not user-fee funded (like TIGER, high-speed rail, and perhaps even transit capital funding) would be eliminated. And ground transportation spending would be limited to revenues from fuel taxes, which he would not increase. Overall, DOT outlays would decline from $95 billion overall in 2011 to a low of $66 billion in 2016, rising to only $72 billion by 2020. As House Republicans showed with H.R. 7, their proposed transportation bill that would have eliminated the mass transit account of the highway trust fund and eliminated aid for bike and pedestrian projects, they are willing to sacrifice non-automobile transportation programs in favor of establishing a “targeted and cohesive” policy, which in this case appears to mean roads-only.
In contrast, President Obama’s proposed budget would expand transportation expenditures massively over the next six years, with a particular focus on intercity rail and public transportation. Under his budget, federal expenditures going to transit and rail would increase from 22.9% of transportation funding in 2013 to 35.7% in 2018; under Mr. Ryan’s program, they could decline to almost nothing, since transit cannot pay for itself using user fees, like it or not.
Reihan Salam argues that Mr. Ryan is simply charting the general path that the GOP wants to take — “toward smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom” — and that “there would of course be negotiation over the size of spending cuts and over revenue.” But in a time when the state of the nation’s built infrastructure is miserable, a negotiation over cuts is entirely the wrong discussion to be having, especially when state governments have not shown themselves willing to increase transportation spending; the argument we should be having is how much federal spending on transportation should expand.
Mr. Salam is convinced that Mr. Ryan “has always been careful to note that his support for entitlement reform flows from a deep commitment to preserving America’s social safety net,” but massive cuts to public transportation will not aid the poor and urban dwellers even if the hopeful vice president has a “deep commitment.” His budget would be a death blow to many millions of Americans who rely on transit to get around everyday because they have no other options — not to mention the many millions more who do, but choose to take transit and in such aid the nation in cutting congestion and pollution.
This campaign will be played out on issues that are far more important than federal transportation subsidies, of course. But we should be clear about what direction the United States may head after November’s election.
The Democrats have a choice: Accept Mr. Ryan’s commitment to undermining the role of government by agreeing that “things need to be reformed,” just with more moderation than Republicans would allow; or projecting a strongly held view of the importance of the role of government in American society. The fact is that significantly improved transit systems in the nation’s cities will require increasing federal investment, and that simply will not happen if Mr. Ryan gets his way.
Postscript: I’d simply like to quote Christian Wolmar’s nice commentary on the very successful London Olympics, as it feels relevant to this column:
“It is, though, worth stressing that these were the public sector games. They were bid for by the public sector, won by the public sector, organised by the public sector, paid for by the public sector – oh you get the picture. But there is more: the security ended up being rescued by the public sector and relied on public transport – organised and paid for by the public sector, even if at times provided by private companies… The whole event was a celebration of the way that people get together, form governments which then run things for the people, and shows that government is not something that necessarily we want less of, the favourite mantra of Romney and Ryan.”
* In part because the cities are largely the domain of the Democratic Party (other than in local races, the GOP does not make much of an effort to promote legislation that woud aid urban areas) and thus are rarely contested in national elections. Ironically, Mr. Romney’s father, George Romney (who was Governor of Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 1968) was a persistant advocate for aid to the cities and was appointed by President Nixon to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he fought unsuccessfully for increasing housing aid for low- and moderate-income families before resigning in early 1973.
** Romney’s proposed budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would shrink non-defense discretionary funding from 3.9% of GDP on average to between 1.1 and 1.6%, a massive reduction.