Monday, March 26, 2012

Road construction funding, politics, cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, and the media industry, too

As the former publisher of a B2B transportation construction magazine, I can't help but look on the latest mess in Congress with a wry smile.

In case you are unawares, a little background: the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and bridge construction and maintenance projects, has not been fully funded since the expiration of the last bill in 2009. Since then the Congress has merely passed funding extensions. But the Senate passed a $109 billion, two-year surface transportation reauthorization bill a couple of weeks ago – and in a bi-partisan fashion 74-22.

Caution! Rant ahead.

But the GOP controlled House has stalled the bill up to this point. If the bill does not get passed, or another extension not agreed upon by March 31, road construction projects will grind to a halt and construction workers will find themselves on the unemployment lines.

You would think, therefore, that this one would be a no-brainer. And let's face it, despite the posturing of GOP House members, the bill will probably pass – in one form or another.

But why does this kind of thing happen? The reason is simple: the GOP controls the House, the GOP is not in favor of public spending on public works. They haven't been in the past, and their position has hardened over the years.

So that means that those folks who own construction companies are all Democrats, right? Ha ha. Sure.

No, construction executives are overwhelmingly Republican, demand low taxes, and generally want government spending cut. It's just that they are not so much against spending on transportation projects, as long as they are in their segment of the business. I remember long conversations over drinks with construction executives that centered on this very issue. Contractors are very much aware that their personal political views are in stark contrast with their own business interests.

I attended a trade association convention once in San Antonio, shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president. The keynote speaker was none other than the former president, George H.W. Bush. The man was treated like a hero, it seemed that everyone in that room had voted for the guy and were genuinely sad he had lost the election. But after Bush had left the room following picture taking and autographs (my mother has a picture of me and the President), we all returned to our tables. One executive said to me "I'm going to miss that guy, but Clinton will make me rich." He was no doubt right because just two years later a massive highway bill was signed into law and the following few years were the most prosperous the industry had ever seen (my magazine did pretty damn good, as well).

This ability to vote one way only, even if it is against one's one best interest is an American tradition. Millions of Americans do it all the time. And this kind of behavior is not limited to construction. The media business is no different.

For years media moguls have been working to make sure their readers are in no financial shape to be media consumers, demanding the same policies most contractors demand, as well: low taxes on the wealthy, while cutting funding for education.

In general, the media business is fighting efforts to keep the Internet free of government control. Meanwhile, their customers are in the opposite camp, demanding an unfettered, uncensored, and generally open web.

If the House fails to pass the transportation bill contractors will be irate, but they will have only themselves to blame – it will be the scorpion and the frog again. But I seriously doubt this will happen: House members are already seen as the Grinch, and spending, despite the claims of the right, comes easily to all legislators.