A love/hate relationship with infrastructure

Rep. Bobby Schilling (R) of Illinois hosted a town-hall meeting in his district the other day, and as Dave Weigel noted, the Republican congressman didn’t stick to the traditional script.

Schilling has been critical of the stimulus law, which was enacted before he was elected. But he said Friday more of the money should have been devoted to infrastructure projects.

“If the government would have taken a lot bigger chunk of that money and put it into infrastructure, we’d be doing a lot better today,” he said.

Oh, great. Now we have conservative House Republicans arguing publicly that the Democrats’ stimulus bill wasn’t liberal enough when it came to public investments. The GOP has been attacking the Recovery Act for so long, the party no longer even notices that it’s arguing, simultaneously, that it spent too much and spent too little.

Of course, the dirty little secret is that Republicans have been engaged in this little shell game for quite a while. Remember the “Highway Hypocrites”? These are the conservative Republican lawmakers — representing most of the House caucus — who swore up and down than additional spending, including in areas like infrastructure, would be awful for the economy, right before they begged the Obama administration to spend the money on their constituents, argued it would create jobs, and showed up smiling at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Sam Stein had a fascinating piece late yesterday documenting the extent to which far-right GOP lawmakers, including many zealous anti-government freshmen, who continue to fight tooth and nail for infrastructure spending, certain that the public investment would create jobs and boost their local economies, only to send out press releases scolding “out of control” and “reckless” federal spending.

When pressed, these same Republicans will offer an explanation that “sounds like something out of the mouth of a Keynesian economist, rather than the musings of a congressman who proudly touts his support from the Tea Party movement.”

If hypocrisy were the only problem here, it would still be quite a story. It gets worse, though, when we notice that the very same GOP officials who believe infrastructure spending is good for the economy are also trying to slash infrastructure spending.

The next flash point in the debate over the nation’s will to live within its means may emerge this week as House Republicans present a long-term transportation bill expected to cut funding for highways and mass transit by almost one third.

Should the bill emerge from the House unscathed, it may collide head-on with a very different Senate version that is marginally closer to a proposal from the White House.

Republicans clearly know these cuts would be bad for the economy. Indeed, it’s clear because these same Republicans keep saying public investment in infrastructure is good for the economy.

And yet, they’re doing this anyway. Republicans apparently feel like they have no choice — they’re against spending because it’s bad for the economy, and that includes the spending they support, because they believe it’s good for the economy.