By Tom Gogola
A critical piece to fund a proposed Larkspur SMART train extension moved forward in the U.S. Congress last week as lawmakers agreed to authorize the so-called “Small Starts” grant program at $11 billion over six years.
There’s $20 million buried in the green-lit transportation authorization bill earmarked for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) system that would extend the rail tracks by about two miles from San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal.
The regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has pledged the other $20 million that’s needed to extend the route. That $20 million represents matching funds—availability is contingent upon Congress authorizing the millions promised to SMART by President Barack Obama last year.
But the entire spending package might go out the window as yet another government shutdown looms on the year-end horizon. Earlier this week, lawmakers were grappling with multiple radical right-wing riders dropped into an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government through next year. That bill includes the Smart Starts grant funds authorized by Congress.
Congress faced a deadline this week to push out an omnibus spending bill, but Republican Party extremists have threatened months of good faith work undertaken between parties to work out a comprehensive omnibus bill, says Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).
The transportation authorization bill that was passed earlier this month included the SMART dollars, passed with “strong numbers and strong bipartisanship,” he says.
But now that it’s time to appropriate the money, Republicans have again threatened a shutdown in what has become an annual outbreak of Obama Derangement Syndrome among Tea Party-afflicted members.
“They’ve thrown the kitchen sink at the Democrats,” Huffman says. “It’s been almost surreal except for the fact that this is how they act every time, so it should stop feeling surreal at this point.”
After months of good-faith negotiations, Huffman says, the party “threw it out the window and offered a deal to Democrats that was basically every radically ideological agenda [item] that they could dream up.”
There are various poison pills that could put the $40 million pegged to the Larkspur extension at risk. House Republicans sent Democrats a bill last week with numerous hot-button demands: Ban Syrian refugees from the U.S.; amend the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act that aimed to rein in Wall Street excesses; pollute the Clean Air Act with industry demands for deregulation; wreck Obamacare; defund, demonize and otherwise delegitimize Planned Parenthood; sabotage an Obama deal with Iran that’s keeping them from getting the bomb; whittle away at the Endangered Species Act … and on and on.
That bill came before a scoffing Democratic House minority last week, and was sent back to the GOP with a call to scrub out the extremism. “It’s been flatly rejected by us so now we are— having had the goalposts moved—we are really not quite sure where this goes in the next few days,” Huffman said late last week.
Obama has already laid a marker of his own and said he would veto any spending bill loaded with poison pill riders. Democrats in Congress don’t have a majority, but Republicans don’t have a veto-proof majority that could withstand a presidential veto.
Huffman says the showdown presents a key test for newly minted House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand fan and former vice presidential candidate who took over the leadership post from a weeping John Boehner earlier this year after Boehner got viciously Pope-shamed in his own house (and after Kern County Rep. Kevin McCarthy revealed himself to be a well-coiffed bozo).
Ryan may or may not want to start his tenure off with a shutdown bang straight out of the Boehner era, which was characterized by a remorseless Tea Party faction hellbent on stopping Obama in his tracks, even at the expense of the country’s bond rating.
The open question is whether the hardliners stand their ground and work overtime to push the omnibus bill to a Christmastime nail-biter with all that the attendant bluster Americans have come to expect from their elected officials.
Months of bipartisan work on an omnibus package could go down the drain as dysfunctional governance rears up yet again—just in time for a fresh act of terrorism to exploit in the run-up to Republican primaries that kick off in the new year.
“Is this something Speaker Ryan needs to do—posture for the Freedom Caucus—before he comes back to the table in good faith to get this done?” Huffman asks. “Or does it signal that Republicans want a showdown? We just don’t know.”
As Congressional leaders went back to the negotiating table, Huffman was cautiously optimistic that funding for a SMART extension would survive the outburst of legislative fanaticism—but you never know. “It’s not quite done yet,” he says.