One could be forgiven for thinking the House’s most recent extension to the surface transportation bill was about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, rather than highway spending.
The high level of attention the Washington political engine has paid to the pipeline provision suggests the division over non-transportation issues could prevent Congress from passing a final bill this year.
Leaders of both chambers are expected in the coming weeks to begin merging the elements of the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill and the House’s plan. The House failed to pass its five-year, $265 billion plan, but approved provisions to expedite highway projects and boost port funding through the passage of the 10th highway funding extension this month.
“We think the substance of the two bills is so similar that they should be able to reach an agreement on the policy and funding level,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The trouble is the temptation to use the non-transportation elements as a partisan rallying cry will only grow ahead of the presidential elections. President Obama vows to veto legislation approving the proposed pipeline from Alberta, Edmonton, to the U.S., and the push won’t get a much friendlier reception in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Some of those same environmentally concerned senators also may balk at the House’s push to speed up highway projects by removing some environment regulation. The House provision to force the Environmental Protection Agency to hand over regulation of coal ash to states likely will be received similarly to the pipeline provision.
And, despite House Republicans hailing the 69 Democratic votes for the extension as evidence of strong bipartisan support for the Keystone pipeline, many of the votes were cast just to get the chambers into conference.
Although the full Senate version of the surface transportation bill passed, unlike in the opposing chamber, there are plenty of cracks in the plan for opponents to exploit, wrote Ken Orski, a Washington-based transportation analyst. What appears to be the largest is that it will take 10 years of “pay-fors” to fund the plan, which could expire as soon as October 2013.
That’s red meat for fiscal conservatives, who argue the federal government should spend within its means but balk at boosting funding through a fuel tax increase.
The final bill likely will be in the two- to three-year range, considering the Senate has found ways to maintain current funding, and the House hasn’t for its five-year plan. The House’s push to increase funding through the expansion of domestic energy production wouldn’t be enough to prevent a $9.4 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund by fiscal 2012, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.
Most telling of the chances for a compromise, perhaps, is the pessimism expressed by a former House member who has watched the process from the beginning: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He told attendees of an April 18 transportation event that Congress won’t pass a bill before the presidential election.
“America’s one big pothole right now,” he said. Americans “want to know why they aren’t filling these potholes. It’s because Congress hasn’t taken any action.”