Kicking The Can Down The Road: A Habit That's Hard To Kick : It's All Politics Congress can't come up with an agreement to pay for road repairs and construction over the long haul, but like a road crew filling a pothole, they do seem to have a patch at hand.

Kicking The Can Down The Road: A Habit That's Hard To Kick

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Later this week, the U.S. Senate is expected to tackle another budget challenge with a vote on a temporary transportation spending bill. Emphasis on the word temporary. It would keep highway funding through May of next year, and avert a looming crisis. Without Congressional action, the highway trust fund would run out of cash in August. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, this follows a familiar pattern.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It goes something like this. Oh, my God, the government is going to shut down. Or, this program is going to run out of money. Or, this tax will automatically rise. Whatever it is, without Congressional action, something really terrible will happen. Then, just when it seems like there's no hope, there's a deal. Often a bipartisan solution. Not a big one. Not a permanent fix, a temporary one. For a few weeks or a few months. Then, when that deadline draws near, the countdown clocks come out once again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

JOE THORNDIKE: We've become sort of addicted to artificial crises.

KEITH: Joe Thorndike is a historian with the publisher Tax Analysts, and by we, he actually means Congress, and the president. They've gotten pretty good at rolling from crisis to crisis, with one temporary extension after another. There's a phrase for this that everyone in Washington uses.

THORNDIKE: When you kick the can down the road you're not just solving the immediate problem. You are guaranteeing the arrival of a new problem. So you know - you kick the can down the road, you will get to the can again. There's no question about that.

KEITH: When it comes to the highway bill, many say these temporary fixes are problematic because big road projects require lots of advance planning. Members of the House from both sides of the aisle said as much, right before they voted overwhelmingly to hit the snooze button on a larger debate, over how to fund road repairs and construction in the future. Thomas Petri is a Wisconsin Republican.

THOMAS PETRI: Today is about doing what Congress does too often, kicking the can down the road. Avoiding one crisis while setting up another.

KEITH: And Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Democrat representing the District of Columbia.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I appreciate that we have a bipartisan, a bicameral bill, but I think that for our concern it expresses bipartisan disappointment.

KEITH: President Obama stood in front of a bridge in Delaware that's closed for repairs, and pushed for a long-term transportation funding bill. And in the same breath, he endorsed the short-term fix.



KEITH: But he doesn't like it.


OBAMA: We don't need unhelpful and unnecessary deadlines that crunch a few months from now. And we should have been this close to the deadline in the first place.

KEITH: Obama quoted Delaware's governor, saying, to call this bill a Band-Aid is an insult to a Band-Aid. So why, if everyone hates operating this way, does it happen again and again? The Farm Bill was extended repeatedly over two years before finally passing. Since 2010, there have been some 20 continuing resolutions to keep the government open for business in the absence of a funding bill. Oh, and don't forget all of the temporary extensions of the debt ceiling.

Frances Lee has a theory about the cause.

FRANCES LEE: No party wants to take any risks right now.

KEITH: Lee is a political science professor at the University of Maryland, who says the close balance of power between the two parties, the chance that Republicans could take over the Senate, means no one really want to have to raise taxes or make unpalatable cuts elsewhere in the budget.

LEE: It's hard to make tough choices at anytime and it's especially hard when you hope that if you can just as a popular little bit longer, you might get a big electoral victory.

KEITH: When it comes to transportation, the next deadline would be 2015. And as crazy as that sounds, by that point, the presidential election will be casting a shadow over Congress. Some are already predicting that means they'll put the issue on layaway one more time.

Tamara Keith. NPR News, The White House.

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