Congress Returns to Work on Transportation Bill
Congress reconvened last week on Sept 8th with a transportation deadline looming over their heads. At the end of October, federal funding for road and transit programs will run out. Lawmakers have been struggling with a long-term highway all year as the House and Senate butted heads on the terms, and they left it unresolved during their summer break. The House finally produced a three-month band aid that was approved the next to last day of the session, but that band aid is about to wear off.
Now they have returned to work, expecting to work on spending in the aviation sector, but instead must direct their attention to creating a multi-year transportation bill. But now it seems as if the issue will be pushed to the back burner as debate on the Iran nuclear deal, de-funding Planned Parenthood and the Pope’s upcoming September visit to Washington move to take center stage. Will this mean more temporary extensions to both the highway and aviation sectors to meet the needs? Or will Congress finally reach an agreement both the House and Senate can live with? “I’m confident as we get into this fall we’re going to have pretty smooth sailing,” House Speaker John Boehner quipped. The press interviewing him chuckled.
This past July, the Senate approved a three-year proposal with over 60 votes and put it in front of the House. Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terry O’Sullivan said, “The passage of a long-term, six-year Highway Bill by the U.S. Senate shows that bipartisanship and putting America’s interest ahead of politics is still possible.” He continued, “Now is the time for the U.S. House of Representatives to move forward on their vision for a long-term bill without further delaying tactics and short-term extensions. Congress must put politics aside and work together to make the crucial investment that our nation’s infrastructure so desperately needs.”
But Republicans shot the bill down with the promise of trying to find funding this fall for a long-term bill. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer didn’t feel the House had adequate time to consider the bill before the recess. “In the short time that we have available, it would be not possible to consider that bill in any depth,” he said. “Certainly the Senate doesn’t expect us to take a 1,000-page bill and just, you know, no questions asked and pass it and send it to the president.”
Needing a band-aid, the House signed off on a temporary funding bill this summer and they got a lot of heat from transportation industry groups and their advocates. “Republicans don’t know how to get a transportation bill done,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra has said. In a statement, Bill Shuster, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman said, “The Senate’s work on their transportation bill is a positive step, but the House also needs to make its voice heard and put forth its own priorities for such a significant piece of legislation.”
Since the 1930’s, the main source for infrastructure funding of this nature has come from the gas tax. Though advocates in the transportation industry have pressed for an increase of the gas tax, lawmakers in both the Senate and the House won’t hear of it. Currently, the gas tax is at 18.4 cents per gallon and has not been increased since 1993. As vehicles become more efficient, the tax has fallen short of the expenses it’s supposed to pay for. Annually, the government spends about $50 billion funding projects in transportation areas, but each year the gas tax is only bringing in around $34 billion.
Transportation advocates are crossing their fingers that Congress gets started right away on a long-term bill. The pressure is on for the House to create a substantial and lasting highway bill, get it passed by the Senate and toss it on President Obama’s desk, just in the nick of time.