The results of the November elections likely will have more impact on the surface transport bill than the next five weeks of negotiations in Congress before the month-long summer recess.
Signs abound that the Senate and House won’t come to an agreement before August, the unofficial cutoff for passage of a bill before year-end. House Speaker John Boehner hinted earlier this month he might push for a six-month extension if Congress can’t pass a bill before the funding extension expires on June 30, according to reports. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn’t ready to give up on the bill, but said he favors a six-month extension to get negotiations past the election season if an accord can’t be struck.
House proposals to cut transportation spending and shift funding “more fairly” to states suggest the chamber, which failed to pass a bill, is still divided. The House push for approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, along with easing regulation on coal ash, also face strong Senate resistance.
Sniping earlier this month shows just how ugly partisan rhetoric could derail conference negotiations. Reid, D-Nev., accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., of sabotaging conference negotiations to hurt the economy, according to Politico. A spokesman for Boehner called the accusation “bull___.”
No wonder transportation groups such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials are calling on Congress to focus on the matter at hand: transportation. Some of this could be written off as political posturing, but the fact the chambers haven’t begun discussing funding, the linchpin of the bill, suggests Congress won’t beat the buzzer.
The looming Highway Trust Fund bankruptcy will only increase pressure on Congress to pass a bill no matter how the elections turn out, said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Transportation Foundation. Although the precise date of when the main engine for federal highway construction will sputter is unclear, estimates range from early 2013 until later that summer. Congress will have to decide whether to cut funding to avoid exhausting the Trust Fund or to prop it up with dollars from the general fund.
The former options likely will be pushed more strenuously if the House keeps or expands its roster of fiscal conservative Republicans. A recent House motion on a proposal to instruct conferees to limit transportation spending to what could come from the Trust Fund failed overwhelmingly, but shows the difficulty House leaders will have in getting fellow members to agree to maintain current spending levels.
The Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill aims to maintain spending levels, though its use of “pay-fors” that will last for up to 10 years has drawn Republican criticism. The House failed to pass its five-year, $260 billion plan, and instead approved a 90-day funding extension in mid-April to enter conference with the Senate.
Much of how future transportation negotiations will fare depends on whether Republicans or Democrats gain a clear dominance in either chamber, Schank said. Republicans currently hold the power in the House, while Democrats have the voting edge by a slim margin in the Senate.
If Republicans sweep the election, they could see their wins as a referendum on their efforts to cut spending. A clear Democratic win, however, could find the party still at odds with House Republicans. A strong Obama win could embolden the president to push harder for proposals to spend billons more annually on transportation, but that would require a lot of “political capital,” Schank said.
There is also a slight chance a surface transport authorization could be passed in the “lame-duck session,” said Greg Cohen, president and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance. An agreement on transportation spending might come out of a deal on the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts or the looming debt crisis. Plugging the anticipated shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund with money from the Treasury is one option — it’s been done before — but raising the fuel tax is unlikely, Cohen said.
“It looks like the next Congress will be even less into raising taxes than this one,” he said.