The curtain is nearly drawn on Congress passing a surface transportation bill this year, but a positive House performance could set the stage for a bolder plan in 2013.
The recently approved three-month extension of the federal highway program — the ninth since the last surface transportation bill expired in September 2009 — gives the House another shot at passing its five-year, $260 billion bill. But it’s unlikely Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will be able to wrangle the needed votes in time, and if he doesn’t, another extension will be needed, according to Transportation Issues Daily.
Shortly after that potential extension expires, Congress heads into summer recess, only to return during the throes of partisan rhetoric, otherwise known as the presidential election. That’s why transportation analysts can be so pessimistic about approval of a plan despite there being nearly eight months left in the year.
Still, there’s 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 a 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 more intense for the next highway bill reauthorization. That next campaign will come soon, particularly if Congress opts for a two-year plan, which would expire in a little more than a year because implementation keeps getting pushed back.
Although an improving economy likely will 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 gasoline tax, which hasn’t increased since 1993, the only option to significantly boost funding.
Before this can happen, Boehner needs to convince fiscal conservatives and those who want to shift more highway dollars to the states. He and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., have their work cut out for them. The positive momentum created by billing the plan as a “jobs act” quickly faded, and House Republican leadership finds itself on a virtual seesaw.
When they propose measures more attractive to conservatives, such as not funding transit with fuel tax revenue, they lose moderate supporters. The reverse happens as House leadership pushes to tie domestic energy expansion to highway funding, including the approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline
The embarrassment of not being able to match a Senate plan might force reluctant House Republicans to bend, Cohen said. There is also talk of the House creating a shell bill in which funding measures are sent to conference, with the scale of the bill being worked out later.
Calls for the House to adopt the Senate’s plan likely will be ignored, because it’s not in representatives’ “DNA” to defer to the opposing chamber, said Mortimer Downey, senior adviser to construction engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. “The House always felt that they are ones that write the transport bill,” he said.
The political gridlock is forcing the House to reconsider removing one of its largest medals of pride: a ban on earmarks. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said his proposal to reintroduce the dreaded vehicles of pork spending in a closed-door meeting in early March was generally well-received, according to Reuters. As much as removal of the ban could grease the process, it could be for naught if the T&I committee comes under more fiscally conservative leadership.
Mica likely won’t receive a waiver to remain as committee head, largely because few waivers are granted and he has come under criticism for not getting a bill passed, Downey said. Potential successors include Reps. John Duncan, R-Tenn., and Bill Shuster, R-Pa., both fiscal conservatives.
As the cast changes and Congress hopes for a strong final 2012 act to resound into the next year, Standard & Poor’s warns a lack of a long-term funding plan could trigger another credit crisis, and the further deterioration of U.S. infrastructure.