By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
In 1988, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford was an Army bomb technician serving in Pakistan. It was his job to keep things from exploding. On July 30, he played with a little fire.
Crawford, a Republican who represents eastern Arkansas’ 1st District, was one of only five U.S. House members voting against a bill providing $10 billion for private providers to serve veterans when the VA system is overloaded. The bill also will provide money to the VA to hire additional medical staff and lease 27 new medical centers, and it made it possible for senior executives to be fired at will by the secretary of veterans affairs. Because some of the spending is offset by cuts elsewhere in the department, it will add $10 billion to the national debt over 10 years. Only three in the Senate voted no.
The bill was passed remarkably quickly for a Congress that doesn’t accomplish much even slowly. No one wanted to be seen as voting against veterans, especially not amidst the current scandal over long wait times, poor care, and records manipulation. The department reported in July that about 636,000 veterans have been waiting at least a month for medical appointments. Crawford’s Democratic opponent, Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson, quickly held a press conference with veterans denouncing the vote.
Why did Crawford, a veteran and the son and grandson of veterans, vote no? In a phone interview, he said he opposed adding $10 billion to the national debt by giving it to a bureaucracy that has misused what it had. He said management, not money, is the big issue at the VA, where funding has increased 57 percent since 2008 at the same time the patient load has increased 14 percent. He said the VA already had the statutory authority to send patients to private providers when it’s backlogged.
Crawford said Congress should have given incoming Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald time to assess the situation at the agency and then make recommendations. Instead, he said, Congress reacted to the problem by writing a blank check.
“These veterans have sacrificed a heck of a lot more than to have to go on borrowed money to get their health care,” he said.
The rest of Arkansas’ congressional delegation voted for the bill, including its three House members who also are veterans.
Was Crawford’s vote the right one? Your answer to that probably depends on whether you think it addressed the problem or merely threw money at it. If there’s any area where the government should deficit spend – even be willing to waste a little – it’s this one.
Whether or not it was the right vote, it certainly was a courageous one, especially during an election year. Of course, Crawford did once defuse bombs for a living.
It wasn’t Congress’ best week from a fiscal responsibility standpoint. Congress voted to replenish the Highway Trust Fund so that it will remain solvent through May. Had it not acted, the fund, which pays for 70 percent of Arkansas highway construction, would have been empty, and states would have been reimbursed only as money became available. It’s hard to plan mutli-year highway projects that way.
The main additional funding mechanism is pension smoothing, which lets companies delay contributing to their employees’ retirement plans. Doing so increases the companies’ taxable incomes in the short term, though they will have to make up the difference later, which will lower their taxable incomes then. The measure will increase highway revenues for six years and then start reducing them as companies replenish their pension funds. So once again, Congress has borrowed from the future to pay for present needs.
There were options. The Senate voted for a bill that would have funded highways into December without the pension smoothing provision. The House didn’t budge.
Arkansas’ four House members voted for the pension smoothing bill. Its senators voted for the gimmick-free Senate version and then voted for the final version. Sen. John Boozman also voted for an amendment that would make states responsible for most highway funding. It did not pass.
Some say Congress should stop the games and just raise the gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1993. Of course, there’s a reason for that. According to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday, only 14 percent of Americans support a gas tax increase, while 58 percent oppose it. Other proposals that would increase revenues drew little support. So Congress is reflecting the will of the people.
Something has to give. The country’s infrastructure is decaying and congested. Congress isn’t willing to buck popular opinion or create a different set of funding priorities. Maybe it’s time to rethink our transportation system, but into what?
I don’t know, but this governing by crisis while relying on accounting gimmicks is no way to run a railroad. Or fund highways.