As we begin the 112th Congress, I think it very appropriate that the Committee starts with a hearing on the importance of infrastructure spending on jobs and the economy. The Chairman and I share a very strong belief in federal infrastructure spending and the need for a robust multi-year highway bill. I am frequently ranked the most conservative Senator, most recently by the National Journal. And the Chairman is a proud liberal. Yet, we are a great team on infrastructure issues.
I’d like to take a moment to comment on last night’s State of the Union. I have always said that government has three spending responsibilities: defense, infrastructure, and unfunded mandates. We’ve heard President Obama talk about infrastructure before, but there has been little follow through. For example, the President’s so-called Stimulus bill, which was largely sold to the American people as a way to improve our infrastructure, actually spent less than 3 percent on repairing the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. Another example was this past Labor Day’s announcement where he promised a $50 billion plan for infrastructure, but no action ever followed and he never spoke of it again. In light of this, I was interested to hear him highlight our infrastructure needs again last night. I hope he actually follows through. If he is serious this time, I am committed to working with him and Senator Boxer, as I have always done, to address our nation’s infrastructure needs.
The challenges of getting a highway bill completed this Congress are significant, but I hope we are going to overcome these challenges. For years, I have been leading the fight in Washington for increased spending on transportation and infrastructure, because I believe strongly that there are very few forms of government spending that are beneficial to our citizens and the economy. Infrastructure spending is one of them.
Many of my colleagues do not view infrastructure funding as one of our primary federal responsibilities. Yet there is an undeniable link between a robust economy and strong transportation network. As we move to address our debt crisis, I will ensure the need for public infrastructure funding is part of the deliberations. That said, it can’t be business as usual.
The trust fund has always enjoyed large surpluses, and over time, policies have been added that were not the original intent and are not consistent with the compact we have with those that pay the gas tax. I’m always surprised by some of the things that are funded, like state capitol domes, ferry boats for tourists, and recreational bike trails. I know these types of things only make up 3 or 4 percent of the bill, but they give people an opportunity to demagogue the entire program as wasteful and misguided. It is the same as earmarks, which make up less than 1% of discretionary spending. I won’t be able to get my GOP colleagues to support a bill that does not refocus trust fund dollars on our crumbling infrastructure.
There are tremendous challenges involved in passing a multi-year highway bill, but the most immediate is that the Highway Trust Fund can no longer support spending significantly more funds than we collect in gas taxes. Congress must be very bold in crafting a highway bill that balances the funding realities with the tremendous needs of our infrastructure, which is the backbone of our economy. We have avoided this conversation for several years now, but if we fail to act, the consequences will be severe. They can no longer be ignored. I look forward to working with Senator Boxer and the rest of my colleagues on striking a balance that is both responsible and passable in the Senate.