This Republican is trying to use Uber to sell his highway funding plan

This week, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) attempted to use Uber to explain his amendment to the federal highway bill that would shift authority over federal highway and transportation funds to the states, accompanied by an 80 percent cut in the federal gas tax. The first-term Republican's delivery was mangled. But his office kindly sent along what he meant to say, which was, "My amendment would not reduce America's investment in infrastructure, any more than Uber reduces America's investment in car service. In the real world, value is not a cost."


Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Other Republicans — Grover Norquist, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — also have tried to argue that the ride-matchmaking service Uber speaks to the values they hold. Mostly, that's because they see game-changing innovation being held back by regulation and, as they see it, collusion. (One imagines what poetry President Reagan might have spun about Uber's battles in the states.) But Lee was aiming at something a bit different here, and that's adding a customer service spin to the principle of devolution — cherished by conservatives. Those who serve the customer better — whether it's state transportation agencies or a rule-breaking new car service that makes rides pop out of the air seemingly like magic — are the ones to whom funds for continued operation should flow.

During floor debate, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, "I call it not devolution but complete and utter destruction of a system that has been in place that the states have grown to count on." That's what drove Lee to Uber; he and his House counterpart, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), are arguing that, even with a cut in the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon, more money stays in states that way because of cuts in red tape. In the technology world, they've got a name for that. They call it innovation accounting, meaning that new advances require opening your mind to new ways of measuring things.

Still, Lee's spokesman says that his boss could have used almost any product to make his point: "The argument has less to do with Uber than it does the free market. We could have made the same argument about Subway sandwiches vs. McDonalds." And, to be sure, talking sandwiches would have been more intelligible to the average C-SPAN viewer. But, of course, the 43-year-old senator didn't do that. In the tech world, Uber is becoming the go-to reference to describe a promising start-up. (Here a lede from a recent piece in Delray Beach's Pineapple Newspaper: "Could the next Uber, Coin or Tesla Motors be incubating in South Florida?") And it's increasingly becoming a way for politicians to talk about changing the status quo.

Republicans are still learning to talk about Uber, as Lee's clumsy delivery suggests. And for what it's worth, the senator's plan fell on a 28-to-69 vote. But expect them to keep trying.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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