GOP's highway robbery: How self-styled patriots choke future growth, ensure American decline

Reagan knew the importance of highways and infrastructure. Why is today's GOP determined to destroy it?

Published July 20, 2014 6:30PM (EDT)

Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan                                                      (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

As I write, it looks like Congress may well avoid the catastrophic slashing of highway trust fund spending this summer — a once mundane feat, which passes for a major accomplishment these days. Just don't look too hard at the details (still in flux) — gimmick-based funding for only less than a year, which means, essentially, no change from the disastrous Tea Party-dominated status quo. As New York Times reporter Ron Nixon put it, at the end of a recent story on the highway spending bill shenanigans:

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., has lobbied Congress for a four-year spending plan that would allow state and local governments to begin work on longer-term projects that cannot be squeezed into a limited time frame.

“We’ve had 18 short-term measures in the last five years,” Mr. Foxx said. “The cumulative effect of short-term measures is that the country is grinding to a halt.”

There are bills in both chambers, notes Becky Moylan at the blog of the American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE], warning, “However, either bill would take some reconciliation to pass through the other chamber. More critically, neither bill provides a long-term, sustainable funding solution.”

This comes at the same time that federal high-speed rail has been entirely abandoned, while China is in a building spree that recalls America's late-19th century railroad boom. America's stagnation as a world leader could not be summarized any more simply than this — and those self-proclaimed patriots with their foot on the brakes are blaming everyone but themselves.

It's not a completely new situation, however. America has been under-investing in its infrastructure for decades. The CASE has been issuing report cards on the overall infrastructure shortfall since 1998 that are nothing short of staggering, following an earlier, similar report in 1988. There was a brief respite when Democrats gained control of Congress in the 2006 elections, followed by Obama's election in 2008. During the recession — as officially recognized — infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP hit a 20-year high. Since then, spending has plummeted. It's part of the broader austerity onslaught, which Obama himself initially encouraged via his presidential deficit-cutting commission, but which the Tea Party has taken to such extremes they have twice threatened to throw the country into default.

Yet, if austerity mania is primarily explained as hostility to the welfare state, the anti-infrastructure side of it reveals something else: a much deeper and older hostility to the very nature of the common good, the earliest and most passionate advocates of which were, ironically, the historical progenitors of the GOP — namely, Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Federalists, followed by Henry Clay's Whigs.

Indeed, it was not until the depths of the Great Recession, with its unprecedented mass unemployment ,that the Democratic Party fully embraced the cause of national infrastructure building, after almost 150 years of vacillating between intense opposition and sporadic support. Under FDR, the CCC, WPA, PWA and other agencies built a staggering amount of public infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, schools, hospitals, airports, etc. —  much of it still being used to this day. It was enough to help revive the economy partially — restoring high levels of GDP growth, but not enough to return the economy to full employment, which would not happen until mobilization for World War II finally brought all sectors of the political establishment on board. From then through the 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the Interstate Highway System, and the 1960s, when the most intensive build-out took place, America experienced a golden age of bipartisan support for national infrastructure spending that helped us reach the peak of international power and influence.

Among the public at large, that bipartisan consensus endures. In 30 years of polling since 1984, the General Social Survey has found that roughly four times as many Americans think we're spending too little, rather than too much, on the nation's highways and bridges, and the difference between Democrats and Republicans has only been 2.9 percent on average, with Republicans slightly more concerned that we are spending too little. Democrats have been more concerned than Republicans just three times out of 18, with one tie.

It's not just voters, either. There is plenty of support for infrastructure spending among donors to both parties — but there's a catch. The more directly infrastructure spending concerns a donor group, the more likely the group is to strongly favor some spending plans over others, and thus the fragmentation process sets in. It's a story as old as the republic itself, as historian John Lauritz Larson explained in his 2001 book, "Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States." The idea of public infrastructure spending was initially quite popular, with advocates as prominent as George Washington himself, and spanning the entire political spectrum for a time — a fact that's hard to square with a lot of popular mythology:

Americans of the late twentieth century have been conditioned to see free enterprise and government noninterference as virtues so compelling and self-evident that they must have been the goals of our revolutionary forebears.... Yet, in the early decades of the Republic, articulate, even elegant designs for social and economic development sprang from leading minds of the revolutionary generation, setting the agenda for politics and competing for popular approbation.

This situation did not last long, Larson notes:

Very quickly — and with no little irony — people found the seeds of paralyzing conflict within the broadly popular and virtuous objective of internal improvement. They took to supporting or opposing public works according to their private or local interests, and sometimes according to whether they believed that the revolution had empowered the nation, the states, or private individuals to impinge on the conditions of life for the larger community.

More broadly, the entire view of the proper role of government was affected:

How such promotions were introduced, whose interests they promised to serve, and whether they yielded the desired results all helped shape the electorate's attitudes toward energetic government. No less important, however, was the way in which the enemies of particular projects, or of internal improvement in general, exploited the rhetoric of revolutionary republicanism to discredit positive government and advance a libertarian variation as the true legacy of the American Revolution.

Initially, under the Articles of Confederation in the 1780s, and the U.S. Constitution in the 1790s, internal improvements were supported by virtually every prominent politician, usually in very similar language, which masked a variety of divergent lines of thought. Larson illustrates this with the example of Washington's advocacy for developing the Potomac River as a gateway to western expansion:

The Potomac navigation activated Washington's whole vision of the rising American empire. The West held the key to America's future greatness. The 'vacant' lands back of the Atlantic states promised safety and prosperity for generations to come.

Washington's frustrations in trying to realize his vision under the Articles of Confederation was part of what propelled him to support a stronger federal government. However, Larson notes:

Many of Washington's Virginia friends and neighbors shared his interest in Potomac navigation without embracing the interlocking purposes of his grand developmental vision.

Jefferson and Madison were two such figures, whose differing views Larson illuminates. It was only after multiple rival river development schemes in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York collapsed disastrously, leaving few but speculators as winners, that criticisms hardened into a political ideology of populist anti-elitism that the Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, rode to power in 1800 and thereafter.

There were ample good reasons for their views — many reflected in the Occupy movement's criticisms of Wall Street rule in our day. But there was also a much sounder basic development vision at issue, as well. The key reason for the multiple failures was the sheer difficulty involved, combined with a lack of sufficient expertise — a problem set we understand far better today than anyone possibly could have at the time. But when all was said and done, the genuine need for internal improvements remained — unlike the “need” for exotic shadow banking schemes today.

It's true that the Federalists, following the plans laid out by Alexander Hamilton, were the great advocates of internal improvements and an activist central government, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, opposed them. Yet, Hamilton's overall vision of crafting a unified nation-building economic framework endured in the form of tariffs protecting manufactures (first passed in 1816) and a central bank (the Second Bank of United States was authorized that same year) despite decades of Democratic-Republican rule. Although the fate of internal improvements generally languished, even Jefferson realized their importance in practice, as he signed legislation in 1806 authorizing funding for the Cumberland Road, the first major federally funded highway, which connected the Potomac with the Ohio River Valley and beyond — a much less speculative venture than reengineering rivers at that time. Later, Monroe further funded its extension, after initially vetoing funds for its upkeep because he thought the expenditure to be unconstitutional.

The War of 1812 virtually destroyed the Federalists — who had opposed it — as a political force. Yet, ironically, it gave new life to their most positive ideas, as explained on the U.S. Senate website:

Henry Clay's "American System," devised in the burst of nationalism that followed the War of 1812, remains one of the most historically significant examples of a government-sponsored program to harmonize and balance the nation's agriculture, commerce, and industry. This "System" consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other "internal improvements" to develop profitable markets for agriculture. Funds for these subsidies would be obtained from tariffs and sales of public lands. Clay argued that a vigorously maintained system of sectional economic interdependence would eliminate the chance of renewed subservience to the free-trade, laissez-faire "British System." In the years from 1816 to 1828, Congress enacted programs supporting each of the American System's major elements.

Monroe's eventual support for the Cumberland Road was one such program that became law. But Monroe's successor, John Quincy Adams (elected president in the House of Representatives largely due to then-Speaker Clay's support), went considerably further, despite fierce opposition from supporters of Andrew Jackson, who had beaten Adams in the popular and electoral vote. Wikipedia summarizes:

Some of his proposals were adopted, specifically the extension of the Cumberland Road into Ohio with surveys for its continuation west to St. Louis; the beginning of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the Louisville and Portland Canal around the falls of the Ohio; the connection of the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system in Ohio and Indiana; and the enlargement and rebuilding of the Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina.

Adams also established the Smithsonian Institution, the single most science-promoting presidential action of the 19th century.

When Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, that gave rise to the Second Party System, with the Whigs in opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats. Clay's American System was key to the Whigs' economic program, which developed additional features, such as promoting activist state governments, also involving state banks, fiat currency and public infrastructure spending. When the Whigs disintegrated over the slavery question, the Republican Party, which successfully replaced them, took up the same constellation of ideas, which is why they placed first priority on preserving the union, but also set out to build railroads and land grant colleges even in the midst of the Civil War.

By this time, however, Larson notes that the entire ideological landscape had changed, despite the fact that the concern for publicly funded internal improvements continued in practice:

After mid century, railroad developers and other innovative entrepreneurs, while they never strayed far from government subsidies and protection, trumpeted with rising conviction the superiority of strictly private enterprise over public works. In the process, such new Wall Street revolutionaries shifted American ideology onto new foundations: thereafter not the consent of the governed but the freedom or rights of private property became the central pillar of American republicanism....

The result of this entrepreneurial revolution was not what Jefferson's Republicans or Jackson's Democrats had ever intended. The triumph of laissez-faire did not usher in a golden age of liberty where small proprietors flourished unmolested beneath their own vines and fig trees. On the contrary, the new economic order yielded integrated systems of commerce and industry that reduced everybody--farmers, artisans, and small businessmen alike — to a new status of dependency more comprehensive and insidious than anything threatened by earlier schemes of consolidation or internal improvement....

It's tragically ironic that the Jefferson/Jackson Democrats were more broadly successful ideologically, but ended up getting an even worse version of the evil that they feared. At the same time, the Hamilton/Clay/Lincoln Federalists/Whigs/Republicans triumphed in one sense — they were basically right about the need for an activist national economic policy — but lost in another: public virtue was increasingly sidelined by speculative avarice as the driving force in how their dreams were realized, or more often repurposed. Larson continues:

It remained for a new generation, whether Populists or so-called progressive reformers, to try to revive the tradition of positive liberty and energetic government, in service to the general welfare of the people, that once had been among the clear, "self-evident," and motivating purposes of the American Revolution.

Yet, neither the Populists nor the Progressives did more than partially nudge America back toward recapturing a part of its lost heritage. It was not until the total collapse of the Great Depression that the way was opened for a truly thoroughgoing reimagination of how the common good could guide us toward a better life for all. As Robert D. Leighninger, Jr., explains in his book, "Long Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal" (review here), the immediate depression-fighting function of New Deal public works programs was only half the story. The Civilian Conservation Corps built 46,854 bridges and 197 large dams and planted 3 billion trees, just to cite a few of its major accomplishments; the Civil Works Administration built 7,000 bridges and 44,000 new miles of road as well as 200,000 miles repaired, plus 4,000 schools and 1,000 airports, new or improved — again, citing just some of its major accomplishments. The Works Progress Administration built 30,000 miles of urban and 57,000 miles of rural hard-surface streets and roads, plus 37,000 miles of other urban and 515,000 miles of other rural streets and roads, in addition to 24,000 miles of sidewalks, 937,000 new traffic signs, 78,000 new bridges and viaducts, 5,900 new schools, plus 2,170 additions and 31,300 renovations, as well as 226 new hospitals, plus 156 additions and 2,168 renovations — not to mention 2,700 firehouses and 350 new airports. And that's only some of agencies and programs involved!

It was, of course, still partial in its way — most notably for how women, blacks and other minorities were kept in second-class status or worse, although they too gained some benefits. But equally important, the universalist spirit of collective investment in the common good unleashed a logic of social inclusion that ultimately included everyone, even though some battles are still being fought to this day.

As mentioned before, there was a period of several decades when high levels of public investment prevailed under a broad bipartisan consensus, lasting basically through the end of the Johnson Administration. As I wrote for Al Jazeera English in September 2011:

In February 1988, the National Council on Public Works Improvement released a report, "Fragile Foundations: A Report on America's Public Works," a "Final Report to the President and Congress." Its latest comprehensive data came from 1985. It showed that infrastructure spending peaked in the early 1960s as a percentage of the economy. It remained relatively stable until 1968, and declined significantly through 1978, when a modest, but hopeful bounce-back began, lasting only until 1981, after which a new low was reached.

Capital investments in infrastructure fell from 2.5 percent of GNP in 1963 to slightly more than one per cent from 1982 to 1985. Total spending in 1984 -- including operations and maintenance as well as capital spending -- was 2.5 percent of GNP, the same as capital spending alone in 1963, And 1982, 1983 and 1985 were only modestly higher -- around 2.6 percent.

The American Society of Civil Engineers took over the evaluation process in 1998, using a report-card format, with their most recent report card in 2013. America's overall grade was D+, which the report card derived from 16 categories, each assigned a letter grade based on physical condition and needed fiscal investments. Our best grade was a B- in solid waste, followed by two C+s for bridges and rail, a C for ports and a C- for Public Parks & Recreation. There was a D+ for energy, followed by eight Ds: schools, roads, transit, aviation, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste and wastewater, with two D-s pulling up the rear: one for levees, the other for inland waterways. The overall estimated investment needed to bring our infrastructure up to snuff by 2020 is $3.6 trillion. The highway trust fund deals with three of these categories: roads (D), transit (D) and bridges (C+).

It goes without saying that the costs to our economy and our quality of life are felt fairly equally by Republicans and Democrats alike. Yet, here we are, with the ubiquitous Republican anti-tax hysteria crippling our capacity to simply keep our nation's infrastructure up to date.

The website headlines a quote from Ronald Reagan, saying, “the bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.” It's a reminder that while Reagan certainly indulged in reckless tax cutting — nearly tripling the federal debt on his watch — he still retained some lingering sense of Republicans' traditional fiscal prudence. The site goes on to argue, "We are investing at a rate that's over 20 years old," and backs that up with some fairly stark figures: The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon is unchanged from 1993, while the cost of gasoline has more than tripled, from $1.12 per gallon in 1993 to $3.53 this year, and the average cost of a new car has increased almost as much, from $12,750 in 1993 to $30,748 this year.

All that is currently being ignored by House Republicans. Indeed, by turning their backs on infrastructure spending, today's GOP is turning its back on a key aspect of its own identity — an aspect so deep that it's twice survived party death. If parties have a soul, and that soul reincarnates when they die and are reborn, then public infrastructure spending is part and parcel of the GOP's soul — and now they have all but abandoned it. Surely, when the Tea Party purists look out at all others and see treachery and betrayal everywhere they look, at least part of the reason for the betrayal that they see lies in the beam in their own eyes.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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