Interspersed between his erudite historical recounting of transportation policy over the last 50 years, colorful inside-the-beltway jokes and jabs, and a vision for transportation policy for the next generation, Minnesota DFL Congressman Jim Oberstar offered some particularly harsh language for his party's leader, President Barack Obama, Wednesday afternoon at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
In a speech entitled, "Getting America to Work: Opportunities and Challenges in Transportation Policy," Oberstar was unrelenting in both his vision to create a new, strategic transportation plan, and his timeline for which this vision should be implemented.
The White House - bottled up in a fierce battle over health care reform in the coming months - has stated that Capitol Hill should take a time out from Oberstar's six-year $450 billion bill, revisit it in 18 months, and simply extend existing laws in the meantime.
Oberstar is not persuaded: "An eighteen month delay in Washington means four years. Inertia is the enemy of progress," he said.
As a result, the 18-term Representative from the Iron Range is not backing down.
After presenting his vision for transformations in federal transportation policy, including a reconstructed Department of Transportation that would include a Council on Intermodalism, Oberstar said the hard part was, naturally, deciding how to pay for the new programs.
The Congressman was not impressed with Obama's leadership when faced with this policy question: "The yes-we-can, change-you-can-believe-in White House ran for cover."
Oberstar says he has heard from a variety of business groups who would support user fees (i.e. gas taxes) as a method to pay for new transportation policy programs, including the Chamber of Commerce, the American Trucking Association, and the Associated General Contractors of America.
The Congressman has requested these and other business leaders to develop a consensus around an approach. He added: "I told the groups that they have to lead, because the White House isn't."
Oberstar later referred to the administration's proposal to spend up to $70 billion from general revenues to pay for transportation policy programs as "A terrible mistake."
Representative Oberstar says he has "put his foot down" against Obama's proposal of an 18-month delay. The Congressman says if the House can get consensus on a funding package, "I expect the administration to come around, join hands, and join with us. I am not going to support an 18-month extension."
In his final remarks, Oberstar recalled how his predecessor, former Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK), took the recommendations of the Bush Department of Transportation for a $375 billion program back in November 2003.
"Young went to White House, had an audience with President Bush, advocated for the 375 and was told 'No - and don't ever come back here and talk transportation again.'"
Oberstar said former House Speaker Denny Hastert had a similar run-in with the Bush White House, and, as a result, the legislation ended up with $90 billion less than it needed.
With this precedent, what does the future hold for transportation policy in 2009 and Oberstar's own dealings with the President?
"And so we got a change of administration. Change we can believe in? Yes we can - except no, we can't? We're going to make them believe in it."
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