Last week, the House stepped up to honor a promise Dwight D. Eisenhower made to America in 1956: The gasoline tax every driver pays when he pulls up to the pump will be used to rebuild vital roads and highways.
For decades, that promise was ignored. Each year, most of the now $30 billion that pours into the Highway Trust Fund annually was used to support social programs and hide growing deficits in other parts of the federal budget, while our highways crumbled.For years, state governors across the political spectrum pleaded with Congress to honor the promise that was the foundation of our interstate road system. Give us the money to repair our potholes and widen our crowded highways, they urged. Don't spend it to sustain bloated welfare rolls.
They didn't urge these increases because they were hungry for pork, as some irresponsible detractors have implied. One-third of the more than 40,000 highway deaths annually are related to poor roads. Most of the dead are children. Don't tell me this is about special interests.
Through the years, the federal gas tax rose to more than 18 cents a gallon. Roads continued to erode, highway deaths mounted and still the promise wasn't kept.
Let me tell you what that broken promise has meant here at home. Utahns pay approximately $225 million annually in federal gasoline taxes. For years, we only got back an average of $125 million each year. Approximately $100 million was spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, here at home in the past year, we have raised our state gasoline tax by 5 cents, doubled our vehicle registration fees and taken on nearly $800 million on debt - all in a strong effort to repair our crowded and crumbling highways on our own.
Ironically, a governor from Arkansas, during his 1992 campaign for the presidency, said that gas taxes should be spent on roads, like our government promised us it would be. If he was elected, he would make sure that happened, he said.
I understand why he made that promise. It was what discouraged mayors, governors and a frustrated public wanted to hear.
So Friday, I was amazed to hear President Clinton now attack Congress for doing the very thing he said he would do: Honor this country's promise to its people and restore integrity to the federal budget.
Clinton is unhappy that Congress sharply increased highway funding. But he is particularly angry that the House wants to restore integrity to the federal budget by using Federal Highway Trust funds on the purpose for which it was created.
Because if those funds are spent where they should be, he can't keep spending them on his pet programs.
I was proud last week to stand with 336 members of the House who believe this country must keep its promises.
When I ran for Congress, I said American leaders must work to restore people's trust in their government. I promised to help do that.
Well, my friends, you can't trust a government that doesn't honor its promises. You can't trust a government that imposes a new tax on you, assures you this tax will be spent on highways vital to our safety and prosperity, then turns around and spends it to hide deficits in social programs.
But you can trust a Congress that says promises to you matter, your safety matters, the economic vitality of this country matters. Wednesday night's overwhelming vote for the six-year transportation bill cut across party lines. That's because that vote was really a vote for integrity, safety and economic prosperity.
To me, it's very important that the bill authorizes $1.36 billion for Utah's highways over the next six years. That's $227.5 million annually - a 75 percent surge in federal highway funding in this state. Utah desperately needs the money. It deserves the money. You'll note the amount we get under the bill is nearly the same amount we pay in federal gas taxes. We are finally getting back what we have given.
But just as important to me, this House bill does something the Senate bill doesn't: It requires the federal government to spend federal gasoline taxes on highways, roads and bridges. It keeps a promise.
In the past four years, this Congress has turned back the clock in some important ways. Congress has given Americans the first balanced budget since 1969 and the first federal tax cut since 1981. And now, it is keeping a promise made in 1956.
Integrity. That has an Eisenhower ring to it.
To me, Eisenhower's dream of an interstate system that wove 50 states into one, accessible country was a vision that ranks with Abraham Lincoln's continental railroad and Teddy Roosevelt's Panama Canal for its power to boost this country to a new level of economic prosperity.
I think we'll look back in six years and realize that Congress' courageous commitment to a nationwide highway reconstruction project will be a boost to our prosperity on par with that first boost in the late 1950s.
This transportation bill will save lives. It will create jobs, cut time and money lost idling in traffic and lower the cost of transported goods.
Once again, it will tie us together as a country bound by safe and modern highways. I think Dwight D. Eisenhower would have liked that.