Under-Pressure, Congress Has Opportunities to Make Meaningful Impact

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The 114th Congress is on track to be defined by its ability to handle important cliffs. The pressure is on. Do we stay on firm ground or do we let our country slip to the bottom?

This year, Congress avoided the doc fix cliff by working together in a bipartisan fashion to fix Medicare payments for doctors while also continuing a successful health care program for American kids. It was what America has always wanted in their representatives: negotiation and cooperation.

Two cliffs remain on the horizon. Congress has until May 31 to find a funding fix for the Highway Trust Fund, and until September 30 to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. If we circumvent that first cliff, construction on our roads, highways, bridges and transit systems continues. If we dodge that second cliff, vital export credit for American companies large and small can continue and production lines across America will stay operating.

We can avoid these cliffs simultaneously, just as we did with the doc fix and the children’s health insurance program. Let’s fix our infrastructure revenue stream, fund important infrastructure projects and support our nation’s export infrastructure at the same time.

It’s not an original concept, but it really does come down to our economy. Democrats get that. Many Republicans do too. This transcends party lines, and it will ultimately depend on those who get it done, not those who argue as a delay tactic.

We are already paying a price for this stalemate. Our roads and bridges are crumbling and deteriorating. In my home state of Washington, dilapidated roads cost motorists $2.9 billion a year, around $551 per driver.

As I write, businesses are losing deals to foreign competitors over the Export-Import Bank’s uncertain fate. I was in the room when Steven Wilburn, CEO of FirmGreen, reported that he had just lost a $57 million contract because another foreign government’s export credit authority was able to use the bank’s shaky ground as leverage.

The crisis will only worsen if Congressional leadership fails to step up.

In our history, we’ve been cautious — but never intimidated — by cost. Americans know it will take money to rebuild our infrastructure. They know there may be a little risk involved in financing global transactions. But we’ve been brave enough to incur costs when it is the smart thing to do.

And sometimes you’ve got to spend money to save money. Every dollar spent on infrastructure improvements translates into $5.20 in return value, based on reduced vehicle maintenance costs, shorter delays, less fuel consumption, improved safety, etc. The Export-Import Bank is a self-funded agency, so it runs on the money it earns from interest rates, while also returning billions back to the Treasury to bring down the deficit. It does this while enjoying a 0.175 percent default rate, showing that risk is properly managed and kept to a minimum.

The Tea Party opposes high levels of federal spending and the existence of the Ex-Im Bank (despite it costing the taxpayer nothing). But let me be clear: This Tea Party is not a grassroots movement as it claims to be. The tea party is a Koch-funded, Heritage-funded, astroturfing operation that aims to make people fear the word “government” in any context.

We can retreat into austerity and ignore the cliffs, like tea party extremists want. Or we can confront our challenges with smart policy solutions that every American — Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated — can get behind. Let’s improve our nation’s transportation infrastructure, our nation’s export infrastructure and unleash long-lasting economic growth in return.

We’re all in this together, and we’ve got the bipartisan votes to make the smart, level-headed decisions now. Congressional leadership can do the right thing, or they can join their tea party colleagues reclining back in their front row seat to watch our country fall behind.