The more things change, the more they stay the same

By Bill Kaplan

House Speaker Paul Ryan said: "We're opening up the process. I'm very committed to a complete set of House rules to make it a more deliberative and participatory process" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). However, the national press is looking beyond mere words: 

• Politico reported: "The new speaker (Ryan) is moving to empower hardliners and relinquish some of his powers. But there are real risks it could backfire"; 

• Louisiana GOP Rep. John Fleming, a member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, said: "This is music to the ears of people from the Freedom Caucus..." (Washington Post); 

• And, the Washington Post compared newly elected Speaker Ryan's political promises with those of departed Speaker John Boehner: Both talked about what was wrong with the House and how to fix it. The Post said: "All of this is not to show that Ryan is a Boehner clone destined for the same pitfalls that brought his predecessor low...But it does show that the best intentions on Capitol Hill tend to get caught up in the reality of governing". 

Last Thursday the GOP-led House finally passed a highway-transportation bill (once seen as normal bipartisan governing). The bill's passage was made possible in large part by Boehner's budget-debt limit agreement, which allowed the House to take up other issues. The vote was 363-64, with all Wisconsin Democratic and GOP reps. voting yes (as customary Speaker Ryan did not vote). The New York Times had earlier editorialized: "There is little doubt that the nation's road and transit systems could use more help. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave them a nearly failing grade of D in 2013; the state of bridges is somewhat better, earning a C-plus." And, Politico reported that "71 percent of (Wisconsin) roads are in mediocre or poor condition...(while) 14 percent of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete..." 

But despite the overwhelming need, the six year highway-transportation bill has only about three years of funding, through sundry means. And, there's the rub. Notwithstanding Speaker Ryan's talk of a more "open" era, with more than 100 amendments allowed to the bill, the process came right out of the playbook of the hard-line right. Prior to the final vote, the GOP-led House Rules Committee blocked consideration of two federal gas tax amendments. Politico reported that neither Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer's plan to increase the gas tax (just as President Reagan did) or a bipartisan proposal by Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Renacci and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell "compelling Congress to act on a long-term solution by the end of 2018 or face a gas tax increase would get a vote." 

The Washington Post editorialized: "Bypassing the gas tax Congress misses a chance to improve the (highway)-transportation bill". The Post also criticized the House for voting on "trivial or far-fetched" amendments while blocking votes on gas tax proposals (the tax was last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon). "The more things change, the more they stay the same". 

-- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 - 2009

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