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By David Harrison, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Supporters of a strong federal role in transportation have what seems like an unlikely ally in their effort to shift the direction of highway spending from Washington to the states.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe made an impassioned case for federal transportation funding last month, breaking from fellow conservatives who have called for devolving transportation down to the states.

“The conservative position is to go ahead and do an authorization bill,” the Oklahoma Republican said during a committee hearing. “Quoting the Constitution, the two elements that are the most basic responsibility of the federal government are national defense and the development of a national transportation infrastructure.”

Inhofe’s remarks provide Democrats an important partner in their attempts to maintain the federal role, and they come at a critical time. The May deadline for passing a highway bill is nearing, and the protracted battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security suggests that agreement on big issues will be almost impossible to come by.

To many, the debate on reauthorization of surface transportation programs carries major questions about the fundamental nature of the programs. The constitutional question that Inhofe refers to is the Commerce Clause, which sets up the road map for interstate commerce that Congress has followed for decades in backing roadways, waterways and railroads that further the transport of people and goods.

Inhofe’s comments suggest a split in the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

On one side are lawmakers such as Inhofe, dedicated conservatives who nonetheless consider building highways to be one of the few obligations of government. On the other side are those such as Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and groups including Heritage Action for America that want to either freeze or reduce the federal gas tax and shift the responsibility of infrastructure spending onto the states.

Inhofe embraced GOP heritage when making his case, quoting Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who is largely credited with advancing the interstate highway system in the mid-1950s. “He used to say it’s as much about national defense as it is about interstate commerce.”

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, said the country has moved on from the Eisenhower era.

“Our nation is no longer in danger of becoming a ‘mere alliance of many separate parts,’ as he once feared,” Holler said. “Since the completion of the interstate highway system two decades ago, Washington has struggled to play a productive role in surface transportation. It is time to let the states fully control those decisions without the interference of bureaucrats and committee chairmen in Washington.”

It’s hard to see Congress taking devolution ideas too seriously, however. After all, it would mean giving up lawmakers’ ability to provide federal dollars for projects back home. Last year, a Lee amendment to reduce the federal gas tax and let states pick up the slack fell 28-69, with even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), then the minority leader, voting against it.

Still, Inhofe’s outspoken defense of federal spending is a sign that conservatives have not given up on the idea, and they may use the coming highway bill to try to get traction for the change.

Inhofe also claimed credit for launching the idea of devolution, something he said he has come to regret.

“Twenty-five years ago, Connie Mack from Florida and Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma were the fathers of devolution,” he said. “Until we realized how it didn’t work. Obviously it was more fun to be for than against it.”

Inhofe said nothing about when this change of heart occurred. Based on his voting record, it came fairly recently. Last July, Inhofe was one of the 28 senators to vote for Lee’s devolution amendment, which would have gradually reduced the federal gas tax from its current 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents per gallon.

Inhofe missed the debate on the amendment, but his spirit hovered over the Senate floor as proponents and opponents sought to claim his support.

“Senator Inhofe has voted for this provision in the past,” Lee said at the time. “In fact, in the past, Senator Inhofe has introduced a version of this very piece of legislation.”

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) shot back: “It is not convenient to speak about another member when they’re not here, but mind, Sen. Inhofe does not currently support this,” she said. “We’ll find out in a couple of hours. One of us can apologize.”

Inhofe voted with Lee.

An Inhofe aide said the senator’s final renunciation of his earlier backing of devolution could have come earlier this year.

“He has supported devolution,” the aide said. “States this year are sounding the alarm that devolution is not realistic.”

At the hearing last month, Inhofe got the backing of Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, Lee’s home state.

“There’s a strong purpose in our nation’s transportation system for having a strong federal role,” he said. “We depend on the federal program to operate and maintain our state system.”

Inhofe’s committee has been working on a long-term highway bill, but members have yet to release any details.

Boxer, the ranking member on Environment and Public Works, said she was pleased with the progress but had harsh words for other committees, particularly Senate Finance, which she accused of foot-dragging.

The Finance Committee is responsible for providing the funding levels for the highway bill, one of the most difficult and politically controversial aspects of the highway program.

Boxer also said she agreed with a suggestion from Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to raise the gas tax but to offset it with equivalent tax breaks for working or middle-class families to keep their overall tax bills from going up.

A higher gas tax, Vitter said, “needs to include a tax offset for middle-class families so that at least everyone except the very wealthy don’t pay more federal taxes.”

Boxer said she liked that idea and noted it would represent a tax offset of $36 a year for middle-class households.

Increasing the gas tax is almost certainly dead in this Congress but the idea of tying it to an equivalent tax offset could pick up some more bipartisan support, particularly if the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees remain tight-lipped about their infrastructure funding plans.

Photo: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense via Flickr

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