DOT learning how to play politics

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The threat of automatic federal budget cuts – the “sequester” we keep hearing about – allegedly was supposed to motivate lawmakers to put their differences aside and do their jobs. However, the sequester – which is really an odd word to enter our frequently used lexicon – is now in effect, and little if anything is being done except to prompt officials to call press conferences or go on Sunday morning talk shows and blame members of the other party.

Both parties obviously decry the across-the-board cuts, which mostly hit discretionary spending and do little if anything to address the nation’s long-term debt problem. Congress was forced to pass an unrelated funding bill last Wednesday to avoid a shutdown of all but essential government services. Since a shutdown was about as likely as the reunions of Guns ’N Roses and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the whole thing as it stands now is nothing but hot air to thaw last week’s snowfall in D.C. President Obama already had said he would sign a new funding bill, even if it didn’t replace the sequester.

Meanwhile, those that are hurt most by the more long-term effects of the sequester are parading around in front of the press to blow off steam. The most interesting of these appearances to our trucking readers was made last month by soon-to-be-ex-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who took over White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s podium to decry the damage the funding cuts would do to the U.S. Department of Transportation. LaHood said DOT would need to cut nearly a billion dollars, which would affect dozens of programs, with the vast majority – more than $600 million – being taken from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Have you ever noticed how when the threat of huge government cutbacks looms, DOT is always in the crosshairs? The department is an easy target: Lack of funding won’t force workers to rip up already paved roads, runways or train tracks. They just won’t be maintained, which is fine in the short term – enough time to patch whatever money woes the politicians are filibustering about this week. This time, though, LaHood concentrated on airports and having to cut back flights and security – which certainly would have a more immediate and inconvenient impact on taxpayers, and upped the ante considerably on DOT’s argument that funding losses at the department would hurt everyone.

DOT and all of its agencies have been in the budget dispute for too long – witness the ongoing debate over how to fund the rehabilitation of our decaying highway infrastructure – but while the roads are still passable and planes are still able to take off, no one really listens or cares if the department loses a few million dollars to something else we need every day, such as military protection and Social Security checks.

By LaHood raising the bar and bringing DOT’s plight to a level the everyday masses will feel via FAA cutbacks, he’s brought the fine art of political finger-pointing to his department; maybe the rest of its agencies will benefit. It’s nice to see LaHood get fired up over something besides distracted driving; too bad he’s leaving on a jet plane just when DOT could use him most.