Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Like most people who live in Washington, I hear frequently from people outside "the beltway" perplexed by the performance of government and the tone of our political dialogue. They don't understand the acrimony and downright nastiness they see exhibited by our elected representatives on television night after night. I don't entirely understand it myself, but a big part of it is that the nation is much more ideologically divided and as a result, so is the Congress. Specifically, over the past two decades, we have seen the emergence of an extreme right wing movement in this country that had little or no presence in this country 40 or 50 years ago.
How can I say that? Let's look at the highway bill now pending in the House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner virtually twisted himself into the shape of a pretzel trying to put together enough votes to bring the legislation to the floor. Just before the House left for the Presidents' Day recess he announced that there was still more work to do and that he would try to bring it to the floor in the week after the House returns to session, but before members could return to Washington he finally conceded that the bill was dead. The legislation Boehner was trying to pass was a five-year extension of the current program, but it cut funding for maintaining our roads and bridges by more than 17 percent.
While some Republicans see those cuts as being too deep, Boehner's biggest problem according to Hill insiders and most press accounts, is the large bloc within his party that thinks the cuts are not deep enough.
We are not talking social welfare here. This is not about money for the undeserving poor or protecting endangered wildlife. This is concrete and asphalt used to fix pot holes, repair bridges, widen roads and help the nation's 190 million motorists to get where they are going and perhaps get there with a little less wear and tear. This is a program that is about as Republican as you could imagine.
In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower called on Congress to "protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system." Two years later that landmark legislation was passed providing $25 billion (5 percent of GDP in 1956) for a 41,000 mile network of four-lane, divided and limited access highways. That measure passed the Senate without a single dissenting Republican vote, and it passed the House with merely a voice vote.
The impact that legislation had on the country was monumental. A 50-year review of the economic impacts conducted in 2006 by the Bush administration found that it had lowered production and distribution costs in virtually every industrial sector. On average, U.S. industries realized production and distribution cost savings averaging 24 cents annually for each dollar invested in the non-local road system. In other words, a dollar spent in 1956 would have over 50 years returned 12 dollars to the economy by tying assembly plants closer to their suppliers, reducing the time and cost of getting products to markets and generally increasing the competitiveness and productivity of the American economy.
But it now seems like we have become the heirs to a family that once held a great fortune but can no longer afford to maintain the family mansion much less expand or update it. What is frustrating is that we are not a poor nation. There is only one reason we can't pass a better country on to our children and grandchildren. That is because our political system has been broken down by those who no longer believe in the legacy of men like Dwight Eisenhower, who refuse to recognize that the public sector has always played a significant role in the growth of jobs and opportunity.
The current skirmish over the highway legislation is only one of many battles that will rage in Washington this year, but because of the long history on bipartisan cooperation on this area of public policy it tells us more than the others about the kind of problem we face. Broad public understanding of that problem provides the only serious prospect that it can be fixed.