FLOTSAM & JETSAM: How some signs might change our politics

Monday, June 01, 2015

How some signs might change our politics

Sam Smith

One of the reasons I still recall that Governor Paul A. Dever was working on the Massachusetts Turnpike even before the federal highway program was because the signs along the road told me so. As a boy I even imagined Dever with  a shovel helping the process.

The practice used to be common. But as we have gotten more prissy about politics – such as banning the earmarks that used to help get bills through Congress so you only had a bridge to nowhere instead of as, today, whole budgets to nowhere – the signed signage has disappeared.

One of the prices you pay for this is that no one has a good idea of who brought you the repairs to the bridge or highway you just drove over. Instead of the president and a governor sharing the credit, nobody really knows how it happened. Which is one reason Obama didn’t get more praise for his stimulus package.And why we don't spend more on public works.

As our federal government has become more dominated by gradocrats – lawyers, economists and MBAs – such basic political traditions are being tossed aside. After all, who needs a sign when you’ve got 2,000 pages of regulations to look at?

These, after all, were the same folks that brought us the term infrastructure to replace public works. Now the public not only doesn’t know who did it but what the hell they’re talking about.

Add to this the fact that too many liberals these days think that anything you let states or cities decide for themselves may just be the first step towards their secession from the union.

But go back to the 1950s and you find quite a different story, as I described a couple of years ago:

TheFederal Boating Act of 1958 was an early and benign example of what I came to think of as federal greenmail as Washington increasingly began using the budget as a means of getting states to give up their 10th Amendment authority over matters "not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States."
The boating act was quite mild by today's standards. A Coast Guard history said of it: "Among other benefits, this act made states essential partners in this cooperative effort. Most of the states quickly enacted boating safety laws involving boat numbering, equipment, and operation. These laws were typically uniform, making it easier for boaters to be in compliance when traveling from one state to the next. Further, many states initiated boating safety programs to implement their new laws, increasing the number of officers on the water for enforcement and rescue."
Under today's rules the options given the states would have been early eliminated in favor of hundreds of pages of federal regulations. Over the following decades the use of greenmail would explode - reaching a recent pinnacle not in the healthcare bill mandate - which wrongly asserts its rights based on the commerce clause - but in the massive interference with local schools found in the No Child Left Behind program, an intrusion assisted by highly conditional funding from private foundations who aren't even mentioned in the Constitution.
While backing for this pecuniary assault on the Constitution has often been bipartisan, it is the support of supposedly anti-authoritarian liberals that is most discouraging, since if anyone was presumed willing to stand up for what Jefferson called our "small republics," it was this wing of the Democratic Party.

The federal highway program was another example as the Department of Transportation explains:

The 1954 bill authorized $175 million for the interstate system, to be used on a 60-40 matching ratio… During the signing ceremony at the White House on May 6, 1954, [President Eisenhoweer] said, "This legislation is one effective forward step in meeting the accumulated needs." But he knew it was not a big enough step, and he decided to do something about it. Eisenhower planned to address a conference of state governors in Bolton Landing on Lake George, N.Y., July 12, 1954. Because of the death of his sister-in-law, the president was unable to attend, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon delivered the message from detailed notes the president had prepared. Nixon told the governors that the increased funding authorized earlier that year was "a good start" but "a $50 billion highway program in 10 years is a goal toward which we can - and we should - look." Such a program, over and above the regular federal-aid program, was needed because "... our highway network is inadequate locally, and obsolete as a national system."

He wanted a cooperative alliance between state and federal officials to accomplish the federal part of the grand plan. And he wanted the federal government to cooperate with the states to develop a modern state highway system.

Finally, the vice president read the last sentence of the president's notes, in which he asked the governors to study the matter and recommend the cooperative action needed to meet these goals. The speech, according to a contemporary observer, had an "electrifying effect" on the conference. It had come as a complete surprise, without the advance work that usually precedes major presidential statements. Furthermore, the speech was delivered at a time when the governors were again debating how to convince the federal government to stop collecting gas taxes so the states could pick up the revenue. Some governors even argued that the federal government should get out of the highway business altogether….

DOT also notes:

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower began to promote creation of a program to build the Interstate Construction Program, the nation's governors made clear to him that they did not want to be forced to increase state taxes to pay the additional matching funds for the national program. Therefore, the President proposed to increase funds for the Interstate System, while boosting the Federal share to 90 percent. Under his proposal, the States would continue paying the same amount in matching funds for the Interstate System that they had been paying under the 1954 Act.

Imagine if the Democrats of today had learned something from Eisenhower when pushing for Obamacare.

But, from a political standpoint, it was the signs that were the best. Note how everyone – state and feds – looked good. You knew what was happening and who was paying for it. 

Today, even among liberals, our politics has become too narcissistic to share credit. And so our leaders just spend their time balling out the other side as our roads and bridges continue to fall apart.