03/20/2012 06:46 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

"We Grow Fastest When We Grow Greenest" ~ LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Dealing with climate change is, at its heart, 50% about rebuilding America - replacing the factories, highways, power plants, apartment buildings, cars, trucks, private homes, sewer lines, shopping center, schools, hospitals - the build environment left us by 200 years of American enterprise - and waste.

Inadequate investment in infrastructure, and a sluggish pace of turn-over of these capital stocks, is the story of the last thirty years of American economic history - it's dragged down our economy, but it's also been environmentally devastating.

And the Tea Party Caucus in Congress seems determined to accelerate American decline by refusing to allow America to invest in itself in the way it has always done - through the federal government in partnership with states, cities and business. In this sense the Tea Party is being true to their claimed origin moment, 1775, BEFORE the Constitution. But as soon as the new federal government was in place, it started investing in America. The Army Corps of Engineers began building port and transportation facilities shortly after its creation in 1802. Henry Clay put in place his "American System" of federal highways and public works funded with dedicated revenues in 1816 - in partnership with conservative southern Democrat John Calhoun. Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, launched the Transcontinental Railroad. And Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highways System.

But this year's House Republican caucus has spent virtually all of its time trying to ensure that this tradition - admittedly underfunded and ragged lately - is completely wiped out. Ironically, the only prominent American political figure of our early history who would side with them is the founder of the modern Democratic party - Andrew Jackson!

The Tea Party is in spirit aligned with the forces in our history that wanted a weak and divided federal government, one that took no responsibility for the national economy, ensured with a system in which states could nullify federal laws, or even secede. The Tea Party is in its essence nullificationist, and it obviously, in places like Texas, toys with secession. It regrets the results of the Civil War - and the New Deal - in creating a national government to take responsibility for a national economy.

But this theory doesn't make much sense on the ground, as LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made clear at the LA Green Jobs/Good Jobs Conference. The Mayor is ebullient, enthused, jazzed up about the progress LA is making in modernizing its infrastructure. He's just finished a renovation of the Port of LA, the nation's biggest - creating 20,000 new jobs, and greatly improving its environmental performance. He's now launching a huge modernization of Los Angeles International Airport, again reducing its environmental footprint while adding 40,000 new jobs.

But neither the containers arriving at the port, nor the passengers landing at Bradley Terminal, are primarily bound for Los Angeles or even California. This city is the enter port for a continental US economy - and to pretend that LA's decision to modernize its port is LA's business alone is absurd.

Villaraigosa makes clear that his administration understands that modernization requires sustainability - he is heavily invested in efforts to modernize the weak link in the port system, the drayage trucks that carry containers from dock-side to warehouse, a system which major shippers have tried to keep in the 19th century to avoid the having to pay both truckers and warehouse workers the kinds of good wages that are found among longshoreman on the docks. This system both kept truckers in virtual servitude and ensured that the trucks themselves were grossly polluting and inefficient. A Clean Ports program advocated by a coalition of environmentalists, unions, community groups and health organizations has solved part of the problem, although part remains mired in Court. As a result pollution from the Port is down by more than 50% in a few short years.

But perhaps the most exciting and hopeful of the Mayor's example was this week's passage, by a 74-22 vote, of a new surface transportation bill that includes the America Fast Forward provisions, supported by the nation's Mayors and pioneered here in LA as the "30 in 10" plan.

Fast Forward allows for federal loans to cities that have taxed themselves for mass transit; the loans are repaid as tax revenues come in over time. This means that the projects can be built now, when they are needed, jobs are scarce, and costs are low, and then paid for over time from dedicated local tax measures or bonds. In the case of LA, this meant that transit expansion that would have taken 30 years to build on a "pay as you go" basis can be completed in 10 years, at much lower cost and providing jobs and transportation alternatives when they are needed - now. Fast Forward would allow cities to compete for $2 billion in low-interest loans. According to Villaraigosa, "In Los Angeles, this will allow us to create 166,000 jobs now by accelerating bus and rail projects."

Fast Forward and the overall Transportation bill of which it is a part now goes to the House - where its fate is more positive than you might expect. True, the House Republican Caucus has been unable to come up with its own version of a federal Transportation bill, because it is divided among those who want to completely kill the tradition of a federal/state/local partnership on infrastructure, and those who merely want to cripple it by passing a bill clearly inadequate to maintain even the infrastructure we already have.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the bill put forward by Congressman John Mica, the leader of the "cripple it" faction, "the worst highway bill I've ever seen." But even this bill couldn't achieve enough support among House Republicans to pass, because Tea Party members aligned with the Club of Growth wanted to "devolve responsibility for highway spending back to the states." (Now imagine that Nevada, because of the real estate collapse in LA, simply can't afford to maintain Interstate 15, whose main function is shipping goods from Los Angeles to Arizona and points east. Who loses? Not Nevada - many of the trucks don't even stop as they cross the states - but California, Arizona, Colorado and the rest of the country suffer. That, the Tea Party seems to have forgotten, is why we passed the Constitution in the first place.)

The bad news is that the existing federal transportation bill expires at the end of this month. But in spite of the deadlock so far in the house, there is good news. House Republicans may have to swallow hard and simply approve the Senate bill, because going home and telling the voters that no one will repair the potholes on the Interstate may not be a good reelection strategy.

Cities, the lesson is, can lead - and sometimes there leadership can even help fix our broken capital -- Washington, Dysfunction City.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."