Debate over spending priorities for the 2016 Federal fiscal year is heating up, with a vote scheduled for tonight on a proposed House Appropriations bill for two agencies who work to develop and implement solutions to urban challenges. The proposal, H.R. 2577, includes so many ill-advised cuts to transportation and housing programs that it's already attracted a strongly-worded veto threat from the White House (pdf here).
NRDC ally Transportation for America focusses on three of the more egregious cuts in their latest blog entry about the bill: A cut of $200 million from a program that supports new transit investments at a time when cities and suburbs are hungry for public transportation options; decimation of the Transportation Investments for Economic Recovery (TIGER) program which uniquely makes grants based on merit-based competition between projects, more effectively leveraging federal dollars than simplistic formula-based programs; and a dramatic $250 million cut in Amtrak's budget at a time when upgrades are needed especially in the wildly popular northeast corridor.
This is not to say there isn't room for surgical cuts to some transportation programs, for example Essential Air Service which is fiscally taxing and environmentally damaging and yet receives $155 million just like last fiscal year in the House proposal. However, the vast majority of these cuts make little sense given our nation's infrastructure investment deficit. Not to mention the fact that any annual Appropriation bill should be based on an audit of the current portfolio of investments and a plan for the future. An impressive report from the Carnegie Endowment called for just such a top-to-bottom assessment in a 2011 report (pdf here), and given the program consolidation and policy changes in MAP-21 since then it's an even better idea to first do a comprehensive audit and then make evidence-based cuts. No self-respecting company would approach its budget with a butcher knife while in darkness about overall and comparative performance of an investment portfolio.
Pulling the lens back we see this same approach to housing, although here the negative effects would be compounded since the cuts are most harmful to those who can least afford them. Representative David Price, the ranking member on the THUD Subcommittee pointed this out in a compelling press statement last week: "...[O]ur nation's transportation and housing systems face daunting challenges, and on almost every count, this bill falls short." A particularly noteworthy example noted by Rep. Price is
...the token amount of $20 million for Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. At such a low funding level, the program will not be able to fulfill its mission--transforming clusters of poverty into functioning, sustainable mixed income neighborhoods and allowing the children who live there from having the opportunities that all Americans deserve.
Incredibly, the housing provisions could get worse, unless amendments highlighted by our ally Enterprise Community Partners are defeated tonight, including ones that would prevent HUD from even administering the National Housing Trust Fund (which is already underfunded in the bill as noted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition) and which could prevent HUD from implementing the forthcoming (and overdue) Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and the accompanying data analysis tool being prepared for use in metro regions.
We can do better than this. I'm feeling particularly fired up about foolhardy cuts like these having just listened to Senator Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance, which is exactly what these important housing and transportation programs provide families and communities interested in moving up economically (and environmentally!).
There are smarter ways to handle budgeting, and Congress should reject H.R. 2577 tonight and get to work on a better budget.