Things have become so chaotic on Capitol Hill over transportation legislation that even the political experts admit it’s hard to keep up. If there’s one clear message to emerge from the recent turmoil, it’s that Congress won’t pass a transportation bill by the time you read this. Everything else is cloaked by the fog of political warfare.
Congress faces a March 31 deadline when the eighth extension of the last transportation bill runs out. Lawmakers likely will approve the ninth extension of the law that expired in 2009, but no one is sure how long an extension it will be.
Meanwhile, House leaders are struggling to find the votes to support any transportation measure, and Senate Democrats play a waiting game while the minority Republicans seek open debate on issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to new rules for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Just six weeks ago, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., introduced a five-year, $260 billion transportation bill that included program reforms at the Department of Transportation and highway funding from a Highway Trust Fund bolstered by new revenue from oil and gas exploration. Mica was the picture of confidence, even doffing his coat — a rare occurrence — to address an outdoor press conference.
The bill was the “most important legislation to put Americans back to work,” Mica told reporters. But, almost immediately, the bill drew opposition from a disparate band of enemies. On one side, urban transportation representatives decried the idea of removing mass transit funding from the trust fund and into general revenue. On the other, conservative Republicans expressed opposition because the price tag was too high.
When conservatives balked at the bill, House Speaker John Boehner proposed a pared-down 18-month measure, but is still having trouble finding the 218 votes he needs to pass it.
The impasse has led to a possible breach between Boehner and Mica, although there are conflicting reports from Capitol Hill news media. CQ Roll Call reported Boehner tapped Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to lead staff and lawmakers through the morass and draft a bill that would be acceptable to the majority of Republicans. Shuster heads the transportation railroad subcommittee, and is the son of Bill Shuster, former chairman of the committee.
Politico reported the opposite, that Boehner “had every confidence” in Mica.
Since September, Boehner’s vision has been a transportation bill linked to exploitation of U.S. oil and gas resources. The trust fund has been the venerable source of highway money since the Reagan administration, but has declined in recent years. Reasons for that include more fuel-efficient cars on the road, and the drop in traffic volume caused by the 2008 recession. The Congressional Budget Office projected last month the fund would be $9.4 billion in the red by 2021.
All the while, state and municipal officials, contractors, unions and advocacy groups continue to pressure lawmakers to reach an agreement. Most want to see funding remain at current levels, and many object to a provision in Mica’s House bill that would eliminate trust fund funding for public transportation.
The United States Conference of Mayors joined the chorus last week. Nearly 200 mayors signed a letter urging congressional leaders to act quickly. “There is a significant demand for major transportation now, at a time when construction is less costly, and the resulting jobs are so urgently needed in our local and regional economies,” the letter said. “As mayors, we believe it is crucial that bicameral, bipartisan surface transportation legislation move forward to help us accelerate the financing of highway and transit infrastructure, create well-paying jobs and help get our economy back on track.”
In the other wing of the Capitol, Senate Democrats narrowly defeated Sen. Roy Blunt’s “contraception amendment.” The Missouri Republican proposed an amendment to the Senate transportation bill that would have allowed employers to deny coverage of health services to their employees on the basis of personal moral objections. Casual news consumers might wonder how birth control got mixed with traffic control, but it’s part of an effort by minority Republicans to force the Senate to consider a controversial conservative agenda.
The Senate’s two-year, $109 billion transportation bill, while doing little more than sustaining transportation funding through the 2012 election cycle, appeared to be the front runner in the legislation derby. Touted as a bipartisan effort when it came out of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., bundled the bill with another measure from the Commerce Committee, and a crucial funding package from the Finance Committee. The move was an attempt to block further Republican off-topic amendments, such as construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and an EPA rule to clamp tight restrictions on mercury emissions from industrial boilers and incinerators.
Reid’s parliamentary maneuver would open the way for Senate debate on the merits of the transportation bill. He called for a cloture vote that would block any further “non-germane” amendments. Needing 60 votes, he got 54. Alex Hergott, director of congressional affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a former Republican staff member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the issue is about the minority’s right to be heard.
“This is not an attack on highways. There’s a lot of pent-up desire to address these other issues, and there hasn’t been an opportunity to do so,” he said. “Even though the highways are the victim of these diversions of attention, I think the regular business of the Senate has to be done at some point. If you do it on must-pass legislation like the highway bill, all the more power for those who want to get their point across.”
News reports said Republican senators who supported the transportation bill voted against Reid’s cloture motion. “Reid can have the votes if he wanted,” Hergott said. “The Republicans feel strongly; they’re not obstructing. They want 15 minutes for a vote on Keystone. Who’s afraid to vote on it?”
The events on the Hill beg the question: Will Congress pass a transportation bill this year? More likely is another extension, because a shutdown of transportation funding, and the loss of jobs it would cause, is in no politician’s interest. But Mortimer Downey, senior adviser to construction engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff and a former Department of Transportation deputy secretary, is confident Congress could complete a transportation bill this year.
“The Senate is going to invest the time to get something passed. It will be up to the House,” he said. “We’ll see what shakes out, but I can’t see the end game. They can pass a bill with only Republicans, but every time they look at it, they lose votes from the right because it costs too much, or lose votes from the left for what it does. I don’t know if they’ve found the middle yet, but they may have to sit down in their caucus and say, ‘We’ve got to pass this.’ ”
The House still may be in gridlock when a Senate bill passes. Although it’s an alternative they may not want, members may take it up as the only viable alternative. Boehner recently told Politico the Senate bill “was an option.” He said the House leadership is “continuing to talk to our members, trying to find common ground in order to move our energy and infrastructure bill.”
Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it’s frustrating not to be able to convince members of Congress to pass a transportation bill. “If we could just argue how important this is for the economy, some members are going to change their minds,” she said. “That’s why I keep telling people this is not about the merits of the issue.
“In the Senate, it’s about the rights of the minority. In the House, they have to figure how to get 218 votes in a caucus that’s not entirely unified,” Kavinoky said. “We’re frustrated because people keep asking, ‘What can you do?’ I want to give them an answer. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you can’t do anything. This has nothing to do with whether we need a transportation bill or not. It has everything to do with politics.”