Byway for a visionary country

100 the shotGoing-to-the-Sun is an engineering marvel, a highway scraped out of snow-capped mountains that lifts travelers over Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. That a park would be named after a chunk of ice in far-off Montana long fascinated me. In 2007 I took my first extended bicycle trip, the climax of which was a ride with two new friends (including photographer Harry Campbell) up that highway starting at dawn, from Avalanche campground to Logan. Those three hours of slow, steady pedaling (and the half-hour return without turning the crank) transformed my life: I identified as a cyclist, a definition that would shift the way I look at the world.

Over the following years, I traveled across the archipelago of state and national parks – from Lake Champlain to the Cumberland Valley, along the Lewis and Clark Trail from the Pacific to Yellowstone to Grand Teton, from the Great Salt Lake to Rocky Mountain, and most frequently crisscrossing the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Mt. Rogers in southern Virginia. (I describe some of those sojourns on an old blog, Ruminations on Rambling.)

My trips were possible because Congress and Interior Department bureaucrats executed a vision granting Americans access to wilderness areas across the country. The Park Service, created 99 years ago, now includes 407 sites and 22,000 employees. More than 221,000 volunteers serve 293 million annual visitors.

Going-to-the-Sun, for example, is 50 miles long, completed in 1933 after 12 years of construction. It’s a heritage bequeathed to my generation thanks to the imagination, tenacity and money of our forebears.

Somehow over the last three decades, we’ve lost the commitment to maintaining that heritage, deciding without deciding that the parks aren’t worth the effort required to pass them to our children. The Park Service needs $11.3 billion in maintenance, $6 billion for roads alone.

Perhaps much of that backlog is unnecessary. Maybe Congress has created too many parks, monuments, and historic areas of dubious significance. Or the Park Service has skewed priorities and practices.

IMG_2943Among the facilities in the Park Service domain is Memorial Bridge, between Arlington Cemetery and Washington. The nation’s most majestic federal bridge connects the Lincoln Memorial with the estate of Robert E. Lee. John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession rolled across it. The Marine Corps Marathon runs over it. Thousands of cars commute on it. And it’s deteriorating, needing a couple hundred million dollars to repair corrosion and replace a 20-foot section of guardrail that was destroyed when a car crashed through it into the Potomac 25 months ago.

Commitment to repairing that bridge and 1400 others begins in Congress. Last week the House and Senate passed their annual budget resolutions. The documents are, as I’ve reported for three decades, the part of the spending process in which committees of jurisdiction receive instructions for drafting the bills that fund all parts of the government. Both versions, which Congress is to reconcile into a single resolution in April, call for slashing the part of the budget that constitutes everything that government does within our borders – maintain parks, build highways and airports, fund basic research, inspect food, monitor water, operate courts and prisons, run the IRS, pay government salaries. Total federal spending, now about $3.8 trillion a year, would be reduced by a half-trillion per year for 10 years, compared to current law.

The budget process is an inside game, a snooze except to those who get the lingo and procedure and numbers that represent choices. But the federal budget, like all budgets, represents a vision. It speaks to what moves our leaders and by extension what moves us.

Without detailing the choices, what this year’s resolutions say is: We choose not to fix Memorial Bridge. We choose to be penny-wise. We are broke.

That’s silly. We inhabit the richest nation in history.

The resolutions are driven by the idea of eliminating the budget deficit in 10 years, without raising taxes or adjusting Social Security revenues or benefits, and while increasing defense spending. The long-term driver of the rising cost of government – medical costs for the elderly and the poor – is unaddressed except to slough them off to the states and individuals.

What has us living in such scarcity? What has us substituting a number for a vision? What has Congress saying “not a penny more” rather than painting a picture of our future and enrolling us in it? Or explaining: Our plan is a much smaller government, and here are the things it will no longer do. This budget resolution does neither.

Instead Congress is setting an arbitrary goal – eliminate the deficit (a bit under $600 billion) solely by cutting or shifting spending – without spelling out the consequences of that choice.

When I reported from the Capitol, the leaders told the rank-and-file: Vote for this, we’ll fix your complaint down the line. They would somehow mollify and make the necessary deals with the White House.

For four years, the end game has involved the chaos of stalemate and shutdown – and that was with divided control of Congress. This year, with Republicans in charge of both chambers (and if they can overcome internal contradictions), their adversary will be the Democratic president, who will not sign bills that cut spending $5 trillion. So the exercise amounts to a series of press releases.

The problem is, the budget-writing process is backward. Congress is saying: Here’s the number, later we determine the consequences. It should start: Determine what we want to create; estimate the cost; go get the money.

That’s how businesses work. Start-ups find investors: Visionaries decide what they want to build and what it will cost, and then they enroll venture capitalists or go public. This is how households work, too. Families have a vision of what they want – houses, cars, college educations, and they either work more (and forgo other things) or go to the bank, or both. Successful companies, like successful families, are driven by their vision, not by self-imposed limitations.

Yet our Congress is without vision, operating without clarity on the consequences of its choices. One of them is evident. Memorial Bridge has had a hole in it for two years.

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