William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.
It didn't take long after the Amtrak derailment last Tuesday night for the finger pointing to begin.
The next day, Democrats in Washington were attacking House Republicans for voting to reduce funding for the hopelessly insolvent train line. It didn't matter that human error seems to be mostly at fault, the opportunity for a clean political shot made itself available. Democrats took it.
But it shouldn't have taken another fatal rail accident to highlight the larger infrastructure crisis we have on our hands in this country. It's something we should be talking about anyhow -- and it should be Republicans in Washington and Albany leading the conversation, not running from it.
Republicans are so used to fighting excessive government spending -- with $18 trillion in federal debt who can blame them? -- that they sometimes forget their core philosophy. Republicans ostensibly believe that the least government is the best government. But they are hardly anarchists. Republicans think that core government functions, those that cannot be provided by individuals or the private marketplace, not only exist, but should be affirmatively attended. The military is one example. Infrastructure is another.
Dams, irrigation systems and highways aren't built house by house, town by town; central planning is required. Government is required. America has wandered so far from its core priorities, though, that many Republicans seem to have misplaced this knowledge. They have become anti-spending, even when it's essential.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, America would need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 just to meet its basic infrastructure needs. We should be dubious about that figure. It comes from a trade group standing to profit from infrastructure investment. But it doesn't take an industry advocate to notice that a lot of roads and bridges are falling apart. Try walking in Manhattan these days without twisting an ankle. Try driving on the LIE without hitting a pothole. Whether it's $3.6 trillion or $1.6 trillion, a lot of money is needed.
The country's overall lack of spending discipline and focus makes this a difficult task. Infrastructure should be at the top of the nation's priority list, but it hardly seems to be on the list at all anymore. A congresswoman -- I can't remember who -- once explained this dynamic in a news article I read. She said that repairing roads and bridges wasn't sexy, and that she'd rather do ribbon cuttings. That is, we'd rather create new projects than maintain old ones. At least she was honest.
But if our federal government is $18 trillion in debt, and counting, and if New Yorkers, on the state level, are already the highest-taxed people in the nation, and can't afford to pay a penny more, from where does money for infrastructure repairs come?
The answer is painfully obvious, or rather obvious and painful. It needs to come from reducing spending in other areas, and that means entitlement programs. Gas taxes, which traditionally supported infrastructure repairs, are no longer adequate for the task, in part because of higher fuel standards on cars.
According to the Heritage Foundation, 66 percent of all federal spending last year went to entitlements -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and various forms of welfare. That percentage could be dramatically reduced if the age requirements for entitlements were adjusted by just two or three years. Seventeen percent of U.S. spending went to the military last year. That can certainly be better managed, too.
At the state level, it's Medicaid and pension payments that are the killers. They're the mandates that drive local property taxes through the roof. There are clear solutions available, but they would take political courage to enact. Public pensions going forward could be replaced with 401(k)-type defined contribution plans, just like people in the private sector have. And Medicaid could easily be trimmed. New York today spends more on Medicaid than Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania combined. (Texas and Florida each exceed New York in population now.)
But doing this would take political courage. It would take officials willing to seize the third rail of politics. The alternative is to have no rail left at all.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.