Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is The American Prospect's senior writing fellow. 

Recent Articles

Did Koch Brothers Just Doom America to a Future of Crumbling Roads and Tunnels?

Posted by guest-blogger and American Prospect writing fellow Rachel M. Cohen.

It was never going to be easy for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an increase to the federal gas tax—a tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country. Last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has since lost much of its value, especially with the rise of fuel-efficient cars. With the Highway Trust Fund running huge annual deficits, plans for many infrastructure projects and repairs have been left hanging out to dry.

There were signs that raising the federal gas tax was possible, as when Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in early January that a gas tax increase couldn’t be ruled out, and Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, later agreed with him.

Well, forget it. Because last week more than 50 conservative groups, a number of them funded through the Koch brothers’ network, sent a letter to Congress expressing adamant opposition to raising the federal gas tax.

“Everyone knew it would be difficult, but you had a lot of senators and representatives saying privately that they would be open to raising the gas tax, so long as it could be framed in a certain way,” a high-ranking American Public Transportation Association official told me. “This letter just killed our momentum, I think permanently.”

While incredibly frustrating, this move is unsurprising given the rise of anti-tax groups committed to blocking serious public investment in national infrastructure. In addition to opposing the gas tax increase, the letter also calls for an end to all federal funding for biking, walking and public transit. Ever so disingenuously, the organizations claim they just want to look out for the needs of poor people. 

As Angie Schmitt, a writer for Streetsblog USA, put it:

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

The first signature on the letter belongs to Brent Wm. Gardner, vice president of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, the organization founded in 2005 by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch. In my feature in the current issue of The American Prospect magazine, I look at Chris Christie's cancellation of a new rail tunnel desperately needed in the Northeast, and the role that the national Republican Party and anti-tax groups played in the New Jersey governor and prospective presidential candidate's decision to kill the project known as ARC (Access to the Region’s Core). Now, in the wake of damage from Superstorm Sandy, civil engineers are unsure that the tunnels currently in use by hundreds of thousands of commuters between New York and New Jersey will hold out for another ten years.

Building a new tunnel would have required Christie to raise his state’s low gas tax, a move that the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity has been rallying against for years. From my article, “Blind to the Future”:

Mike Proto, the New Jersey communications director for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded anti-tax group, says that Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project “was one of the best he’s made.”

It’s unclear what it will really take to get this country to invest in its future. We should pray it’s not a big, preventable disaster that kills thousands of people. Building new tunnels, fixing broken bridges, and making America just generally safe to live in should be an urgent bipartisan priority for everyone.

It should be, and it used to be.

This post has been corrected. The high-ranking official from an advocacy group to whom the reporter spoke is employed by the American Public Transportation Association, not the American Public Transit Association. 

'Housing First' Policy for Addressing Homelessness Hamstrung By Funding Issues

The new approach may spring from good intentions, but is undermined by a lack of affordable housing stock.

(AP Photo/The El Paso Times, Mark Lambie)
(AP Photo/The El Paso Times, Mark Lambie) Andre Stokes, who is homeless, tries to stay warm in a shelter he built in downtown El Paso Tuesday, January 13, 2015. Temperatures were in the 30s, which is unusual for the El Paso area. I n an era of shrinking financial resources, policymakers, providers, and activists who work on homelessness prevention and care in the United States have been forced to develop new strategies. There was a time when officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw it as their responsibility to provide both housing and supportive services for homeless individuals, but now HUD now is refocusing its budget predominately on rent and housing—with the hope that other local, state, and federal agencies will play a greater role in providing supportive care. However, whether other organizations will actually be able to pick up those costs and responsibilities remains unclear. The first major federal legislative response to homelessness was the...

Chris Christie Counts on Public Amnesia

With his newfound support for expanding New Jersey's rail capacity, the governor hopes no one remembers that he killed an earlier federally subsidized project that would have done exactly that.

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
(AP Photo/Julio Cortez) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie endorsed a plan to expand his state's rail capacity with a federally subsidized project when he ran for office, and then opposed it when he took office. Now he's endorsed a rail-expansion plan once again. Here, Christie delivers his State of the State address on January 13, 2015. I n 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took over $3 billion in revenue earmarked for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and used it to plug a hole in his budget—leaving the people of his state and the region with no tunnel, and no money left for one in the future. Now Christie has endorsed a new report that includes a recommendation for expanding rail capacity between New Jersey and New York, as if no one would remember that he killed an earlier federally subsidized project that would have accomplished that purpose. In the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect , I report the story of Christie’s 2010 decision and its disastrous...

The True Cost of Teach For America's Impact on Urban Schools

Why are school districts paying millions in "finder's fees" to an organization that places people without education degrees to teach in urban schools—even where applications from veteran teachers abound?

(AP Photo/Andy King)
(AP Photo/Andy King) In a February 4, 2011 photo, Erin Gavin, a Teach for America teacher, listens to students during a group discussion with seventh-graders at a Brooklyn Center School in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. In 2013, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton vetoed a line item that would have granted $1.5 million to TFA. In debates over education policy in urban school districts, few topics are more contentious than the role played by Teach For America, the national organization that recruits elite college graduates to teach in low-income urban and rural schools for two years. It is not uncommon to hear veteran teachers, who majored in education and often have advanced degrees, complain that their profession is diminished by what they see as a preference for TFA recruits who did not study education. Parents are heard to question the qualifications and commitment of TFA’s novice educators, given the assumption that their sign-up for a two-year stint suggests only a fleeting interest in...

Pages