If you’re still wondering why the federal government has a budget crisis, Congress provided one more illustration last week.
In the spirit of compromise, Congress whipped together a last-minute budget casserole that incorporated a little bit of everything and something for everyone.
It included $105 billion for highway, transportation and mass transit projects. For Northwest timber communities — including Idaho counties, in line to receive $27.4 million — the feds’ Secure Rural Schools program got a one-year funding reprieve. A plan to double the interest rates on subsidized federal student loans was beaten back, also for one more year.
I can’t argue against the Secure Rural Schools program. Crafted by former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., this provided a crucial revenue source for county road departments and school districts in timber country. These are communities with scarce private land and meager property tax bases. Sprawling Idaho County — larger than Massachusetts, with 83 percent of its acres under federal management — stands to receive $7.6 million under the budget compromise.
I can’t argue against the student loan decision either. There is something cynical and short-sighted about trying to achieve frugality by increasing student loan interest rates from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That’s a tax increase in everything but name, absorbed by young people who are trying to do the right thing and better their future. How is that good policy, exactly?
So this compromise had just enough goodies to receive broad bipartisan backing, passing the House 373-52 and the Senate 74-19. It received scant support from Idaho’s Republican delegation. Only Rep. Mike Simpson voted yes; Rep. Raul Labrador and Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch voted no.
The reactions were telling.
Simpson wasn’t exactly enthusiastic — but said the compromise will streamline public works projects, fund highway work in Idaho and provide needed dollars for rural Idaho. “The bill is by no means perfect, but the reforms it contains and its vital importance to Idaho were crucial in my decision to support its passage.”
Crapo, meanwhile, was forced to walk a fine line. On the one hand, he had to praise his colleagues for maintaining rural schools and road funding, a highway bill amendment he co-sponsored in March. On the other hand, he had to explain why he couldn’t vote for the bill. “As a whole, it violated the budget levels agreed to by Congress last year during the debt limit negotiations.”
On balance, I think Simpson voted this one right. An abrupt cut in the Secure Rural Schools program would have caused upheaval across timber country, and the student loan interest rate increase, effective July 1, was unacceptable. But this is also what happens when budget decisions are put off until the deadline. It’s tougher to cast a no vote.
The worst part is, we’ll have these same fights again next year. Secure Rural Schools, for example, has been living bailout to bailout. And Labrador’s proposal to allow states to manage some of its national forest acreage — a bid to raise money and offset federal budget cuts — isn’t getting through Congress any time soon.
In the end, this isn’t just about spending choices. It’s about the habitual avoidance of tough decisions. One by one and year to year.
KEEPING AN OPEN MIND
On Monday, Nampa City Council member Bob Henry did a few things you seldom see in politics.
First, he listened to public testimony.
Second, he admitted he didn’t have a better idea.
And third, he changed his mind.
At issue was a plan to build a new public library on downtown Nampa’s “Pivot Block.” Henry had been an opponent of the location, which will require pedestrians to cross busy 12th Avenue South to reach the rest of downtown.
But Henry said he was swayed by testimony from one of the plan’s backers — who said that if Nampa waits for a perfect library plan, the long-discussed project will never get done. Said Henry: “I don’t have a better plan.”
With Henry’s change of heart, the library plan passed the council on a 3-1 vote. (Stephen Kren cast the dissenting vote.) The switch was likely academic. Even if Henry had voted no, leaving the council deadlocked at 2-2, Mayor Tom Dale could have cast the deciding vote to approve the project.
But that doesn’t change the fact that it takes an open mind to listen to testimony — and humility to admit to not having all the answers.
Imagine what might get done if more elected officials — and more pundits — carried themselves this way.
Kevin Richert: 377-6437, Twitter: @KevinRichert