Time appears to be up for the passage of surface transportation bill this year.
Although the House has 31 scheduled legislative days to approve a plan before the three-month extension expires, it would need to send it to conference by June 7, according to Transportation Issues Daily. The chances of the House being able to convince fiscal conservatives to get onboard with the five-year, $260 billion plan by then are slim.
Unfortunately, that means Congress will likely need to pass another funding extension like the one it approved March 29. That’s because shortly after the extension expires, Congress heads into summer recess — only to return during the throes of partisan rhetoric, otherwise known as the presidential election. In other words, the odds of the House and Senate reaching an accord drop dramatically as November approaches.
Still, there is something to be gained in the House approving a plan to match the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill. The proposed House plan is more aggressive in cutting bureaucracy than the Senate bill, and inclusion of such provisions in the final plan could help convince skeptics that transportation spending won’t be wasted in the future. That in turn, could help build momentum for push to increase the federal fuel tax, said Greg Cohen, president and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance.
Such a view might seem overly optimistic considering the aversion of President Obama and Congress to such a tax hike, but pressure to increase funding will be only more intense for the next highway bill reauthorization. Although an improving economy will likely result in more fuel tax revenue, it probably won’t be enough to maintain current spending levels. And Congress will find it even harder to find “pay-fors” next time around. That leaves an increase of the 18.4 cents-per gallon gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993, the only option to significantly boost funding.
But before all this can happen, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, needs to convince fiscal conservative members and those who want to shift more highway dollars to the states. Reluctant representatives might be more willing to vote for the plan knowing that the alternative is to be shown up by Senate Democrats, Cohen said.
“There is a recognition (in the House) that something has to change,” he said. “They have no desire to give up.”
If members from his side of the aisle don’t bite, Boehner will have to make some consolidations to moderate and conservative Democrats. Boehner has made it clear he plans to continue to fund his plan by expanding domestic energy production, but the particulars could be negotiated, Cohen said. Boehner could strike from the bill the drilling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, but keep language calling for the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The House ban on earmarks holds for another nine months, but there is already talk of reintroducing them to break chamber gridlock. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., pitched the idea in early March to fellow Republicans in a closed-door meeting, according to Reuters.
“There was a lot of applause when I made my comments. I had a few freshmen boo me, but that’s OK. By and large it was very well embraced,” Rogers said.
A reformed earmark process, coupled with reduction in wasteful highway spending, would be an improved setting to push a gas tax hike. Besides, with the curtains almost closed for a transport bill this year, the best that can be hoped for is a better stage in 2013.