By Russell Berman - 09/04/11 10:05 AM EDT
Congressional Republicans may be opposed to President Obama’s call for new infrastructure spending, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is pushing an idea that he says would free up funds for critical transportation projects.
In a statement responding to Friday’s disappointing jobs report, Cantor highlighted a proposal to eliminate a rule requiring states to set aside 10 percent of federal surface transportation funds for “museums, education and preservation.” Scrapping that provision, Cantor said, “would allow states to devote these monies to high-priority infrastructure projects, without adding to the deficit.”
For Cantor, who has been one of Obama’s most strident critics in the GOP leadership, the Friday statement was notable because it highlighted specific areas, in infrastructure and unemployment insurance reform, where he signaled the two parties could work together.
“Next week, President Obama will finally unveil his latest jobs plan, and I believe there will be areas where we can work together to produce real results that will help job creators get people back to work,” Cantor said.
Infrastructure investments are expected to be at the center of the major jobs speech that Obama is set to deliver to a joint session of Congress on Thursday. Earlier this week, he called on Congress to pass a short-term extension of a surface transportation authorization bill, along with subsequent reforms to how federal transportation dollars are spent.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
Cantor welcomed the new rhetoric from the president.
“The administration’s previous attempts at this didn’t produce the expected results, and we must be mindful not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” Cantor said, referencing infrastructure spending in the 2009 economic stimulus package. “But we would agree with President Obama’s suggestion earlier this week to give states more control over infrastructure projects and eliminate wasteful spending through reforms to current law, which will boost economic growth without increasing spending.”
The change that Cantor highlighted is included in the House GOP’s legislation to reauthorize the surface transportation program for six years, which says that states “will not be required to spend a specific amount of funding on specific types of projects, such as transportation museums or landscaping.” A summary of the bill says that while granted more flexibility, states would be held accountable for spending decisions through performance measures and transparency requirements.
Between 2004 and 2008, states allocated $3.7 billion to such “transportation enhancement” activities as museums, highway-beautification projects and historic preservation, according to an analysis cited in an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Congress has separately authorized $4.1 billion for transportation enhancement activities, and Republicans argue that redirecting that money to more pressing infrastructure needs, such as improving unsafe bridges and highways, would provide better efficiency and a bigger economic jolt.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation would not comment on specific proposals before the president’s speech, and aides to top Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee were not available Friday.