The President’s Rose Garden demand for a clean surface transportation bill at least gets out in front of the looming hostage-taking situation ahead. The FAA Authorization bill didn’t exist for Obama until a week or more into the shutdown. In addition, this is that “bully pulpit” thing that some on the left have wanted to see out of the President. I think action matters a bit more than talk, but if Republicans can be pressured into not killing a million jobs unnecessarily, this is how you would do it. And this is very good:
Of course, if we’re honest, we also know that when it comes to our nation’s infrastructure -– our roads, our railways, mass transit, airports -– we shouldn’t just be playing patch-up or catch-up, we should be leading the world. Ten years ago, our nation’s infrastructure was ranked 6th globally. Today, it’s 23rd. We invest half as much in our infrastructure as we did 50 years ago, with more than one and a half the number of people. Everybody can see the consequences.
And that’s unacceptable for a nation that’s always dreamed big and built big — from transcontinental railroads to the Interstate Highway System. And it’s unacceptable when countries like China are building high-speed rail networks and gleaming new airports while more than a million construction workers who could be doing the same thing are unemployed right here in America.
And so when Congress is back next week, in addition to passing these clean extensions to prevent any halt on existing work, we’re going to have to have a serious conversation in this country about making real, lasting investments in our infrastructure — from better ports to a smarter electric grid; from high-speed Internet to high-speed rail. And at a time when interest rates are low and workers are unemployed, the best time to make those investments is right now — not once another levee fails or another bridge falls. Right now is when we need to be making these decisions.
There were a couple other elements to the speech. First, Obama endorsed the bill asking for back pay for workers affected by the FAA shutdown. Then he proposed some changes to how infrastructure is funded and reviewed generally. From the White House blog:
After that’s done, I’m also proposing that we reform the way transportation money is invested, to eliminate waste, to give states more control over the projects that are right for them, and to make sure that we’re getting better results for the money that we spend. We need to stop funding projects based on whose district they’re in, and start funding them based on how much good they’re going to be doing for the American people. No more bridges to nowhere. No more projects that are simply funded because of somebody pulling strings. And we need to do this all in a way that gets the private sector more involved. That’s how we’re going to put construction workers back to work right now doing the work that America needs done — not just to boost our economy this year, but for the next 20 years.
Finally, in keeping with a recommendation from my Jobs Council, today I’m directing certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work. And these projects — these are projects that are already funded, and with some focused attention, we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction underway more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.
The first part is just a general no-earmarks message. So what does this second part mean? Well, the White House issued a memorandum that’s essentially a demonstration project. Five cabinet agencies (Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Transportation) will select three job creating infrastructure projects where funding is in place, and the federal bureaucracy is the only thing holding up the shovels. It sounds like they’re expediting any permitting or environmental reviews of the projects, which according to the White House “protect safety, public health and the environment” while getting the projects on line faster.
This came out of that Jobs and Competitiveness Council, and it sounds like basic corner-cutting in the permitting process. Some of this is just common-sense efficiency, but considering the joke that was environmental and safety reviews of things like offshore drilling, it’s worth being at least a little concerned about the impact. I don’t think we should protect inefficient review processes, and if there are ways to improve them, great. But this is kind of murky, with corporate-speak like “Six Sigma” and “kaizen rapid improvement events” littered throughout the fact sheet.
There’s at least a plausible case to be made with this announcement that the Administration is focused on jobs, and considering the weak employment figures, it’s high time. But we shouldn’t throw all regulatory reviews out in the exchange.