For the better part of a decade, I've had nothing good to say or write about Senator James Inhofe, the climate change denier-in-chief.
Inhofe has not re-thought his obtuseness about climate science or backed off his hostility to reducing carbon emissions. That won't change if Republicans win control of the Senate and he claims the gavel of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
What will change is that if Inhofe takes over from Barbara Boxer as head of E and PW, he plans to put more emphasis on the PW part of the committee's work. Inhofe likes infrastructure legislation. Ample funding of sewer lines and drinking water systems is one of the rare points of agreement between Inhofe and Boxer, who are as far apart in political points of view as it's possible to get this side of a banana republic.
And that's where Inhofe knows he might have some run-ins with the crop of Tea Party screechers who might be joining the world's greatest deliberative body in January. Inhofe wants to spend money on infrastructure. Tea Partyers want to roll up Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, cousin Theodore's Square Deal, and shrink the federal government down to a point where the remaining bureaucrats would fit inside a storage closet.
Once Americans come around to their point of view, the Tea people tell themselves in their misty moments, America will return to a golden age. It's a belief typical of narcissistic utopians, who believe that they and they alone hold the keys to paradise.
Back here on Planet Reality, the possible dust-up between Inhofe and his new colleagues over infrastructure spending would reflect a dispute over the proper role of the federal government that dates back to the days when Alexander Hamilton tussled with Thomas Jefferson inside George Washington's Cabinet.
Hamilton saw the federal government as a lever to grow an industrial civilization, and pointed to the Constitution's "necessary and proper" clause as the source of authority for energetic use of federal power. Jefferson, suspicious of Hamilton's ambitions, preferred a small government for a country of yeomen.
Hamilton's view won the day. Had the Tea Party been around at the time, they surely would have opposed Hamilton the expansionist and sided with Jefferson the strict constructionist. Even Jefferson, however, might have run afoul of Tea Party purity tests. During his presidency, despite his misgivings that he lacked constitutional authority to acquire territory, Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, doubling America's size and securing control of the Mississippi River and port of New Orleans for American commerce.
Hamilton's actions during America's early years set a precedent for center-right political leaders to use federal power to build up the bones and muscles of a modern economy. Hamilton's thinking was a root of the river and harbor improvements that were important features of Henry Clay's "American System," of Abraham Lincoln's Transcontinental Railroad, and of Dwight D. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System. Along those lines, Theodore Roosevelt used federal power to check monopolists and to shield natural resources from unfettered plunder in order to correct the worst excesses of America's market economy and assure that it would last.
Inhofe can't hold a candle to any of those leaders in vision or accomplishments, but he does understand that the federal government has an indispensable role to play in building and maintaining essential infrastructure. There is plenty to be done. Every few years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report card on how well we're doing keeping up with infrastructure maintenance, replacement, and expansion. The short answer: We're not.
Wastewater treatment and drinking water systems, for example, received D- grades in the 2009 report card. Drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of $11 billion over the next five years. Many wastewater systems are at the end of their useful lives. Transit investments are not keeping up with increasing ridership. State and local parks have $15 billion in unmet needs.
If and when Inhofe makes a push for more spending on water and other infrastructure, the old fault line between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians will erupt into view again. It will be entertaining to watch the old Oklahoma bull mix it up with the fire-eaters bearing tea and pitchforks.
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