Want to Fix America's Old Infrastruture? Fix Old Budget Rules | Commentary

Congress isn’t accomplishing much legislatively these days. That’s not news. But in one area — annual appropriations — bills are being marked up and moved to the floor. With diminishing discretionary dollars, appropriators are making tough choices about which programs to fund and which to cut. And all too often they are faced with the choice of balancing current mission-critical programs against an ever growing backlog of infrastructure demands.

The evidence of America’s crumbling infrastructure is plain to see. Examples abound of crumbling bridges, congested and pothole covered highways, dilapidated federal buildings, and airports long-past their prime. And the costs are real and trending upward:

•The latest American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card estimates the national infrastructure deficit will reach $3.6 trillion by 2020.

•Each year, ASCE says clogged highways cost our economy $100 billion in wasted time and fuel.

•Congestion at U.S. airports costs $34 billion, according to ASCE.

The cause of America’s infrastructure gap is simple: Need far exceeds available funding. As federal agencies grapple with growing backlogs of maintenance and new construction demands, they simultaneously are facing shrinking budgets. And, unfortunately, appropriator’s hands are tied on how they can meet those demands due to 23-year-old budget score keeping rules that force appropriators to fund massive infrastructure projects one year and one dollar at a time.

Take the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters consolidation effort at the St. Elizabeth’s campus in Washington, DC. At a total cost of $4.5 billion, it won’t be done until 2026.

Recent congressional reports put this project “over budget” and “off schedule” and suggest it be “zeroed-out” to achieve immediate savings. It is off schedule (and therefore forced over budget) because appropriators don’t have the funds to keep it on schedule. Never mind that zeroing it out will force DHS to renew costly leases that ultimately far exceed the price tag of a new headquarters. Under current budget rules, these facts are irrelevant.

With limited discretionary dollars, the choice is to either put big bucks into bricks and mortar or more boots on the border. But what if we could unlock billions of dollars in infrastructure opportunities, create thousands of jobs AND fund boots on the border? We can. All we need is a simple change to budget rules.

More than two decades ago, certain federal agencies took advantage of the way the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, and the House and Senate Budget Committees (scorekeepers) accounted for the cost of federal leasing and purchase agreements. In some cases, these agencies ended up costing the federal government huge sums.

The scorekeepers stepped in and put in place strict rules that guaranteed transparency and a full cost accounting for all federal infrastructure projects. With few exceptions, the result is agencies must fund infrastructure investments using only scarce discretionary dollars. And, like St. E’s, as these dollars shrink, infrastructure takes a back seat to critical mission requirements.

The private sector has long been willing to help the federal government tackle its infrastructure needs, including projects such as the new DHS headquarters. But they are stymied every time by these arcane budget rules. Some agencies have successfully used the private sector for much needed infrastructure, notably the Department of Defense initiative for on-base family housing. But as a rule, federal agencies are prohibited from entering into efficient, effective, and creative partnerships with the private sector.

There are some forward-thinkers on Capitol Hill and within the administration who are actively exploring ways to create innovative partnerships with the private sector so that we can begin what is long overdue — addressing our nation’s failing infrastructure. These officials should be applauded, because they are arguing for smarter spending, not just more spending.

While states and cities are leveraging long term finance/lease arrangements, often through public-private partnerships, Congress has yet to utilize the massive amount of private-sector investment to meet these needs. It’s long past time to change our budget rules. They are out of date, stifling economic development, costing us jobs and crumbling our infrastructure.

Michelle Mrdeza is a senior consultant at Cornerstone Government Affairs and Executive Director of the SCORE Coalition.