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Voinovich Shows Leadership: Is There More to Come on Infrastructure?

By / 9.15.2010

The good news out of Congress yesterday is that the Senate actually broke through the infamous 60-vote barrier to move forward on the small-business relief bill.  The bill itself is a good thing, and no doubt good news for small businesses struggling to thrive in this sideways economy.  For me, the even bigger story is the leadership shown by Senator Voinovich (R-OH) in breaking the logjam that the Republican leadership had planned for this bill, and for anything else President Obama hoped to pass before the elections.

This vote was not just a one-shot deal for Voinovich—it can be a potential game-changer for the president’s economic agenda this fall, especially if the administration is serious about acting on its proposal for long overdue investments in our infrastructure.

When he announced his vote last week, Voinovich set an important precedent by acknowledging that the country’s economic needs should be more important this year than short-term campaign strategies.  As he put it, “We don’t have time for messaging. . . . This country is really hurting.”

That’s a huge step in the right direction, because it means there is a faint glimmer for hope that Washington will not remain paralyzed during this extremely critical moment for our economy.  As Bernard Schwartz and David Rothkopf wrote in the Financial Times last week, the next few months will be a pivotal time for us as a nation, and the response from Washington (or lack thereof) may have a profound and long-lasting impact on our economy and the world:

The US faces not one but two economic crises. One is that the current slump could easily take a turn for the worse. The second is even more unsettling: a long-term competitiveness crisis that, if unaddressed, raises questions about the country’s ability to create jobs, attract investment and maintain its international leadership.

For both these reasons, it is critical that America’s political classes set aside partisanship and focus on taking concrete action now – even if it comes when such political courage (which is to say responsible leadership) is most difficult, in the last months of an election cycle.

All of the president’s ideas are solid ones with broad potential benefits. In our view, among these, an infrastructure bank is particularly promising and has been misunderstood in many of the initial responses. It is so central to what the US requires at present that voters and leaders in both parties need to examine it carefully and find a way to bring it to fruition.

Senator Voinovich has not only shown he can answer this call to set aside partisanship, he has also made a similar case for investing in infrastructure now, rightly arguing that the focus on short-term stimulus has “miss[ed] the forest for the trees.”  He’s riding a different horse than the president, advocating for a strong highway bill funded by an increase in the gas tax, rather than the president’s proposal for an infrastructure bank.  However, this is a difference on which the two men should work together to bridge the gap between them.  Given the opportunity to do something meaningful for the economy, there should be plenty of room for Obama and Voinovich to find a common ground.

Senator Voinovich has taken a brave first step toward bipartisanship for the sake of recovery.  Now it is President Obama’s turn.  The president has a lot of bad choices he can make in the coming weeks, and there are other moderate approaches to breaking the impasse on infrastructure spending after the elections.  But chances for leadership like this are fleeting, and he should take advantage of the opportunity Senator Voinovich has given him to make infrastructure investment more than just campaign rhetoric.

Photo credit: Respres