The 112 Congress, Federalism and Transportation Policy

Republicans in the 112th Congress are preparing to address a number of issues related to federalism including health care reform, regulatory reform, and a federalism or “repeal” amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These issues certainly deal with questions of the roles of Washington and the states in the American federal system. However, the partisan affiliation of state and local officials tends to influence their position concerning the proper role of the federal government on these issues.

Josh Mitchell (“Battle Lines Form Over Government’s Role”) of the Wall Street Journal reported today on one agenda item for the 112th Congress that can unite partisan and ideological divisions among state and local officals: funding cuts to transportation programs.  Republicans are willing to examine transportation funding as they seek to cut at least $100 billion from federal programs. The potential cuts come as Congress once again seeks to pass a new multi-year transportation bill in 2011.

Reauthorizations of federal transportation policy are a series of macro political and subgovernment  struggles. At the subgovernmental level state and local officials are primarily divided along spatial lines. Southern, rural and low population density states often support more funding for highways and roads while Northeastern and urban areas support funding for a broader mix of mass transit and alternative transportation in addition to roads. Further, funding formulas, the ratio of gas tax contributions versus receipts from Washington and the determination of who gets control over federal funds all serve to divide state and local elected and bureaucratic officials.

These divisions are all secondary to ensuring that the federal government authorizes and appropriates increasing amounts of money with each reauthorization. State and local officials unite for the macro political battle of funding the overall transportation program and then engage in the smaller skirmishes to secure benefits for their specific constituencies.

Republican leadership in Congress will face an uphill battle to cut transportation funding in their efforts to control the deficit. A united intergovernmental lobby led by the National Governors Association, joined with the Chamber of Commerce and construction unions is nearly unbeatable.  Pressure on members of Congress from government officials, businesses and workers in their constituencies  will make it very difficult to oppose transportation funding given the current high unemployment rate, crumbling infrastructure and traffic congestion.

In the final analysis Republicans may have some effect on other issues related to federalism, just not the one issue that unites state and local officials of all ideologies and regions: increased federal transportation funding.

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