(UPDATED) The strained relationship between Ray LaHood and House Republican leadership was on full display Tuesday morning, when the transportation secretary sparred with members of a House subcommittee at a hearing about the Department of Transportation's budget request.
The Department of Transportation is requesting $77 billion for fiscal year 2014. That represents a 6 percent increase in funding, which Congressman Tom Latham (R-IA), who heads a House Appropriations Committee transportation subcommittee, skeptically called a "healthy increase" in today's economic environment.
Latham was pressing LaHood for specific details on the DOT's $40 billion rail budget request. LaHood responded that President Obama was focusing all his time on three issues: sequestration, guns, and immigration. Latham responded "well, we'd like to know what we're paying for before we appropriate the funds, obviously." LaHood said when the president wasn't busy with those other matters, he'd get to it.
So Latham, with a bemused look on his face, said "so it's contingent upon getting..."
"It's contingent upon you all taking action on three things that you've all been paying a lot of attention to -- guns, immigration, and sequestration," snapped LaHood, who is no stranger to criticizing members of his former party.
Related: DOT Head Ray LaHood Takes Another Whack At House Transpo Bill: It “Takes Us Back to the Horse and Buggy Era” (link)
Latham then segued to the beleaguered Highway Trust Fund, which the Obama Administration is proposing to shore up by pulling money from other budget lines -- the equivalent, Latham said, "of putting expenses on the credit card." He continued: "Is there any other way of funding the request? Or if not, what programs..."
"Well, lookit," broke in LaHood (employing one of his verbal signatures.) "For two years -- the first two years that I was in this job -- you all criticized us for not coming up with a way to fund transportation. So you can't have it both ways here. I know you will have it both ways, but you shouldn't have it both ways."
Later in the hearing, LaHood was grilled by Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), who said she was worried her constituents would have to pay cost overruns for a $293 million light rail project over the Columbia River Crossing. "Do you think this is all worth it," she asked, "for a one-minute off the commute time, that this bridge and this project would save?"
"We're not building the bridge to get somewhere faster," he responded. "DOT has never promoted building anything to get anywhere faster. We don't promote things to get places faster. We don't promote building roads or bridges to get places faster. What we're promoted is the idea that for ten years, people in the region have planned this, we have not tried to -- I would say -- the people in the region decided what this project would be."
After some more back-and-forth, LaHood threw his hands in the air. "If you all in the region decide you don't want a transit line, so be it. But you're going to start over. It's going to take you another ten years to plan what you want...we'll take our money and go somewhere else, and you all can start over with the environmental impact statement, and take ten years to plan a bridge that needs to be replaced now."
(It wouldn't be the first time a Republican had returned federal money.)
At the conclusion of the hour-plus hearing -- which involved more fireworks about the bridge project, Positive Train Control, and TIGER grants -- Latham thanked the outgoing secretary for his service. "We don't always agree on every issue," said Latham. "You defend the indefensible pretty well sometimes."
One thing they did agree on: LaHood's focus on distracted driving. "You should be commended...really a huge step forward," Latham said.
Related: LaHood: Cellphone Use While Driving "A National Epidemic" (link)
Watch the hearing here. Note: the video starts 30 minutes in.