Transportation Lobbyists Better Work With the Winners

That’s what they’re paid to do:

There was a palpable sense of disbelief in the air at Wednesday’s gathering of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

On Tuesday, the transportation advocates saw some of their biggest boosters, including U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House transportation committee, go down to defeat as Republicans took control of the U.S. House and the Minnesota Legislature.

“We’re all certainly in mourning,” a somewhat serious Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Alliance, said at the event.

“How do you spell tsunami?” asked Dennis McGrann, a lobbyist with the firm of Lockridge, Grindal & Lauen who represents various Minnesota transportation interests in Washington. “There has been a huge sea change in Washington.”

Oberstar, who lost to Republican newcomer Chip Cravaack, has his imprint on a $500 billion, six-year federal transportation package that would significantly increase federal spending on roads, bridges and mass transit.

And at the state level, voters took power away from the party that famously overrode Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto to secure passage of a $6.6 billion transportation funding package in 2008.

Still, transportation lobbyists who spoke at the event described the political upheaval in Washington and St. Paul as an opportunity to reach out to new leaders and continue their push for more transportation investment.

“This is a new class,” lobbyist Gary Botzek said. “It’s our job to educate and inform these new students.”

Oh yes, it is.

Although many in the transportation industry have the idea that the Democrats are more favourable to transportation (read: infrastructure) spending, the reality is that neither party has as strong of a commitment to transportation infrastructure–to say nothing of any other kind of infrastructure–improvement.

The Republicans reflexively call infrastructure spending “government spending” and oppose it.  The exception they always carve out is the military; perhaps if DOD was the lead agency rather than the FHWA, they would feel differently.  (They are on Corps of Engineers projects).  This was one of the major disappointments of George W. Bush: for all of his willingness to deficit spend, he short shrifted infrastructure improvements.

The Democrats, for all of their talk of economic progress, prefer wealth transfer than infrastructure investment.  That’s one reason why the stimulus was something of a letdown for transportation spending.  Another was the aggressive lobbying of feminist groups to direct money to groups that proportionally employed more women.  This contributed to the “he-session” and is an insult to all of the fine women engineers and other female transportation professionals.   And then, of course, there are all of the ’60’s radicals left over who think that primitive living is the answer for all of us.

The blunt truth of the matter is that every “bridge to nowhere” has a greater contribution to the general productivity of our economy and nation than the vast majority of government entitlements.  The sooner both parties understand the connection between infrastructure improvement and the productivity of our economy, the better.

The Nastiest Election of the Season, and Yes, They're Smoking Something

A couple of interesting tidbits from this election cycle: first, concerning Allen West’s victory over Ron Klein (congratulations are in order) in Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, the Palm Beach Daily News noted the following:

The West-Klein race was one of the nastiest campaigns of the season.

Only the Shiny Sheet would put it this way.  But now that the election season is out of the way, Palm Beach can turn to what really counts: the social season.

And this concerning the downfall of Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalised marijuana, this back and forth from the proponents and opponents (emphasis mine):

“It’s still a historic moment in this very long struggle to end decades of failed marijuana prohibition,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director for the Drug Policy Project. “Unquestionably, because of Proposition 19, marijuana legalization initiatives will be on the ballot in a number of states in 2012, and California is in the mix.”

Tim Rosales, who managed the No on 19 campaign, scoffed at that attitude from the losing side.

“If they think they are going to be back in two years, they must be smoking something,” he said. “This is a state that just bucked the national trend and went pretty hard on the Democratic side, but yet in the same vote opposed Prop 19. I think that says volumes as far as where California voters are on this issue.”

Mr. Rosales is quick on his feet, but that’s the whole point of this: they are smoking something, and want to make it legal.   Rosales also has a point when he observes the state that just flushed two successful Republican women to preserve the People’s Republic characteristic of the place turned around and nixed the legalisation of marijuana, a cause célèbre of the left since the 1960’s.  It may not be the point he wanted to make, though: it looks to me like the people of California have moved on to other mind-alterning substances, the most serious of which is government money, which Californians like to burn with glee.  That in turn explains the financial condition of the state, and I’m not holding my breath about that being fixed any time soon.

Personally I think the legalisation of marijuana (along with other drugs) is coming, as was the case with same sex civil marriage (another phenomenon Californians voted down).  Then we’ll be regaled with pop-up ads like, “No stems, no seeds that you don’t need…”

The Closet Socialists are Still in the Closet

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were an exciting time for me for this reason, but they were also a stressful time.  Between the challenge of dealing with a Scots-Irish workforce (organised and otherwise) and a “culture of envy” which hadn’t experienced the Reagan Era, things could get frustrating.  It got to the point where I confided in a friend that I felt that many of the people around me were, underneath a capitalistic veneer, basically socialists.  My friend, who was born and raised in the area, agreed with me.

And this was in the South.

Things are never simple in Dixie.  Chambers of commerce here always tout a hard-working ethic that dislikes trade unions, but our business was organised within a year and a half of arrival, and the majority population’s ancestors didn’t come to these shores to be told what to do, or even if they had to do anything.  It’s certainly possible to make progress, but it takes a different, more relational approach, and at that point I certainly hadn’t mastered it.  On the other hand it was and is a lower tax regime than we had back in Illinois, but that’s not an ideological statement; it’s just an ingrained cultural dislike to have to shell out one’s money to take someone else “to raise,” to use a colourful expression.

In some ways that seeming contradiction is the root cause of the disaster that the Democrats have experienced in this 2010 mid-term election.  They can see that the American people like, on the whole, to receive government benefits.  So they come up with them, health care being their signature achievement in that regard.  They step back, figuring they had bought the electorate.  What they have bought is a lot of trouble, and a pushback that has many of them scratching their heads.  Unlike the LGBT community, where people get outed against their will (and that somtimes with tragic consequences), the closet socialists are still safely in the closet.

Some of the issues are straightforward.  Our federal government has a talent for taking the simple and making it complicated.  Government benefits are seldom “user-friendly” and usually take a great deal of patience and a knack for navigating bureaucracies (finding the right person is problem #1) to obtain results.  For a people used to the consumeristic convenience of the private sector, this is a bummer.  If our government, for example, would just stop dreaming up new programs and work on the “marketing” of its existing ones, it would have more fans.  Obama’s health care maze is a good example; with its endless list of agencies involved and the outside organisations like the insurance companies thrown in for good measure, getting benefits out of it will be a challenge, and the shifting of costs will produce sore losers.

Another simple issue is the debt.  If there’s one thing Americans understand, it’s being in debt: on the whole, we’re up to our eyeballs in it.  It’s hard to sell a people on ballooning debt for any reason when the central cause of angst for many is their own ballooning debt.  People understand that not only are the “children” and “grandchildren” (the usual final appeal in American politics) at risk; their own bennies are on the line.

But beyond the obvious there’s the obvious contradiction.  Americans fancy themselves as a self-reliant, individualistic people, and their self-image is built on that.  But anyone who has led or managed our people know that things are more complicated than that.  In the past, our leaders have understood how to play “both sides of the street” and win, and many in the corporate world still do.  In places where the government is still reflective of the governed, that still holds.

Given, however, that our political system is divided by ideology–a fairly recent innovation for Americans, although it seems rather permanent to some of us–we have the spectacle of two parties, each controlled by an intellectually homogeneous base, who think that life will be good for everyone if their program is uncritically adopted.  For those caught in the middle, neither side has figured it out, and that becomes especially evident when our economy goes “poop side down,” as happened in 2008.  What we have now is a situation where the electorate swings from one side to the other, dissatisfied with the present situation but having only one alternative.

As I see it, there are only three ways out of this mess that would keep the United States united.

The first two are the victory of one side or the other and the relegation of the loser to the asheap of history, or more accurately the Federal penitentary system.   That’s certainly possible; had Barack Obama put that as his #1 objective, pursued it administratively and left Congress out of the loop, he would be further down the road to a more permanent victory than he is now.

The third is the development of a multi-party system and the coalition politics/haggling that goes along with it.  Divided government is a form of that, but in reality our present constitutional system–along with our Anglophone political sensibilities–rule out that kind of thing.

But in the end it may not matter.  Unless this newly divided government discovers what fiscal restraint is–and I’m not holding my breath–our debt will eventually overwhelm our ability to earn our way out of it (and that ability is increasingly encumbered by the legal and regulatory maze we have for business people).  At that point we’ll have lots of choices, because our continent will be restarting itself.