Ahhh summer. Don’t you love it? 3 months of long days filled with nothing but long walks on the beach and long naps in the sun. And also, DEBATEEEEEEEE!

If you’re like the average debater, then you’ve probably already spent AT LEAST five hours looking into your new resolution. Let’s be honest — if you’re at all like the average debater, then by the end of the summer you’ll probably already have an aff case outlined. Maybe even written.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, because whatever your current summer research status is, if you want to succeed in the upcoming debate season, now is the time to get a jump on the competition. And to that end, here’s a quick briefing on some of the top 3 topics you’ll be arguing over this year to get you started. Beginning with everyone’s favorite part of building an aff case: figuring out where the heck you’re gonna get all that money from.

Funding

Let’s face it. Funding reforms aren’t very sexy. In fact, they can often be downright unattractive. But in this resolution, they almost definitely will make up one of the largest policy pools (if not the largest), so it’s important to have some background knowledge.

Let’s start where the government starts. Where exactly is all the money coming from?

Well, the US mostly gets its transportation funding from the federal gas tax. Which is a problem, since increased fuel efficiency, changing driving habits and increased construction costs are making it’s contributions almost obsolete. So how is the government making up for this ever-rising loss in funding?

Not very well.

So far, the federal government has made up this difference through a combination of draw-downs from trust fund balances, and, starting in 2008, money funneled in from the general fund.

But this revenue source won’t last forever, (for example, the congressional budget service estimates the highway trust fund will spend $22 billion more than it raises by 2025), so unless the government finds a new source soon a lot of really great case ideas won’t pan out to be realistic policies.

Take the FAST act, for example, a five year, $305 billion dollar surface transportation authorization. Is a multi-billion dollar surface transportation bill needed? Definitely. In any normal system, it would be a great idea. But when the entire transportation budget is going underwater, the feasibility of a bill like this is essentially nonexistent.

Which is exactly why Thad was saying implementation would be such a big issue in this resolution. Great ideas will be abundant, but feasible ones will be few and far between. You may have a great idea, but if it costs too much it will never get off the ground. Okay. So we have very little cash to work with. But what is our government doing to fix things?

Well, the Trump administration is considering using something called a repatriation tax holiday to pay for much of its transportation spending. The process would tax corporate earnings that are being held overseas whenever they are transferred to the US, and, with an estimated 2 trillion in earnings, it could be the answer to many lawmakers prayers.

Okay. So we know the government is strapped for funding. Big surprise. But what is it spending it on? Well, whenever our government does get around to spending the little cash it does have, a large amount of it goes towards our second topic: infrastructure reform.  

Infrastructure

The benefits of improved infrastructure are clear. Infrastructure enables global trade, connects workers to their jobs (powering businesses), and can even protect America from an unpredictable natural environment, making it a top priority for real world policymakers and debaters alike. But is our transportation infrastructure really in disarray?

Interestingly enough, despite how much you may hear politicians reference our “crumbling bridges” or “failing roads” (e.g., Donald Trump), America’s infrastructure is actually doing pretty decent.

For example, it turns out that the Federal Highway Administration’s data shows that the number of bridges in the National Highway System that are “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” has fallen steadily in recent decades. Which isn’t to say that some reforms aren’t needed — they are, but the impetus to pass them isn’t quite as pressing as some may make it.  

For instance, there’s a lot of burdensome regulation that makes it difficult for state and local governments to efficiently and effectively improve their roads, bridges, etc., and while the removal of such regulation would definitely be an improvement, it’s not like if our government doesn’t get around to fixing things our roads will turn to dust within the decade. There’s time to make good policy decisions, and there’s definitely time to make sure things can be funded without pushing us even closer to financial failure.

Speaking of funding…

Contrary to what you might think, most of the US’ infrastructure investment comes from the private sector — not government funding. In fact, private infrastructure spending — on freight rails, pipelines, etc. — is about 4 times larger than state, federal, and local spending combined, demonstrating just how willing the private sector is to fund things, and how reliable of a source it really is.

In fact, a lot of the funding being done by the government isn’t even being done on a federal level — state and local governments finance three quarters of overall infrastructure spending — meaning there’s a lot of room for Washington to do more. Or incentive for them to do less.

And this is where we get to the federal vs state responsibility debate, a deceptively “fringe” topic that most certainly will be important to understand.

State/Federal Separation

With most domestic resolutions, boundaries of federal power is usually at least a small sub topic. But when it comes to transportation reform, proper separation of state and federal control could easily take up much more than that. And regardless, it’s definitely something you’ll need to understand.

Unlike with most over federalization issues, separation of state and federal control over transportation reform doesn’t have much backing in the area of states rights. Instead, it’s more of a practical issue.

In fact, (since we just finished covering infrastructure), one of the leading infrastructure proposals right now is one that would place most control over infrastructure development in the hands of state and local governments. Why would this help things, you ask?

Benefits of reducing federal involvement include:

  • Reduced federal fuel taxes
  • Tailored policies driven by specific state need instead of Washington politics
  • Reduced strain on Congress and other federal bodies, leading to more effective federal policies
  • Increased control for state and local governments

Take the Transportation Empowerment Act, for example. It would refocus the federal role of surface transport solely on federal activities – such as interstate maintenance – and give states control over their own transportation funding and spending decisions.

This would allow each individual state to take care of it’s own specific needs, without having to lobby bills in congress or elsewhere. Vermont could fix it’s bridges, Oregon could keep adding bike lanes, and neither state would have to waste resources on fixing problems it doesn’t have.

But of course, every policy has its downsides.

Potential negative impacts of reducing federal involvement include:

  • Crazy high state fuel taxes
  • Failure of states to effectively take over for the federal government (leading to even more infrastructure problems)
  • Long-term increased interstate congestion (state highways contribute a great deal to interstate congestion levels, and inability to regulate them could become a burden)

Further reading:

General

https://www.mercatus.org/publication/why-dot-s-role-funding-and-regulating-transportation-should-be-reduced

Transportation Empowerment Act

https://www.lee.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/the-transportation-empowerment-act

http://cqrcengage.com/napa/file/aulSNlgXaFP/Devolution%20is%20a%20Bad%20Idea%20Leave%20Behind.pdf

Additional sources:

http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/analysis/2014/05/05/funding-challenges-in-transportation-infrastructure

http://www.heritage.org/transportation/report/what-congress-and-states-can-do-reform-transportation-policy

http://www.heritage.org/transportation/report/highway-trust-fund-basics-primer-federal-surface-transportation-spending


Noah Howard is going into his 4th year of competitive debate. Having competed at the national level for the majority of his career, Noah believes that there’s more to an argument than just a list of impacts. Behind each simple piece of evidence, there’s a much deeper world waiting to be explored. In his eyes, debate is about immersing yourself in this world of ideas, and learning to convey your findings in simple, clear terms. He believes debaters should seek primarily to grow in their own understanding; only by diving headfirst into the world of ideas can you ever reach true mastery of rhetoric.

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