Highway Bill in Jeopardy, Again?

Since the last highway and transit bill passed in 2005, Congress has been unable to pass a long term reauthorization.  Instead, lawmakers have relied on a series of short-term extensions, the most recent of which expires at the end of the month.  According to the latest report, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is hearing rumors of yet another (number 10!) short-term extension.

Until this week, there was an element of optimism surrounding the conference committee negotiations.  Earlier this week, CQ (sub. req’d) reported that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) “suggested” that “negotiators were close to an agreement.”  However, how to pay for the bill has become a predictable sticking point:

“We need a bipartisan pay-for,” Bettina Poirier, Boxer’s staff director and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee general counsel, told the Transportation Construction Coalition on Wednesday. 

But Poirier expressed optimism that negotiators will reach a compromise in time to begin circulating a conference report within the next two weeks.

“We’ve seen no indication that if they can find a way, they won’t do it,” she said.

But today, Politico’s Morning Transportation offered this pessimistic view:

 In the House, GOP conferees feel like conference Chairwoman Barbara Boxer is just not listening to them, and they fear a draft bill will drop next week that they have had no part in writing. Boxer, meanwhile, alleges House leaders aren’t treating the transportation negotiations seriously. (emphasis added) 

The not serious charge is becoming commonplace.  Yesterday, when news broke that Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) would offer a motion to instruct conferees (key vote: yes) to keep spending within the bounds of the Highway Trust Fund, proponents of big spending leveled a similar charge.  According to The Hill, Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank saw a non-policy motive for Congressman Broun’s motion:

Over the past month there has been lots of happy talk about passing the transportation bill but this … is the House saying that they are not interested in working together and they are going to derail the process. (emphasis added) 

It would seem the process has already derailed.  Roll Call reported a House GOP aide familiar with the negotiation said “there’s no progress” on the conference agreement.  Instead of sorting through gimmicky pay for provisions that will only result in additional taxpayer bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund, lawmakers could simply take the former routine approach and only spend the money they have coming into the trust fund.

When you’re $15.7 trillion in debt, not spending what you don’t have sounds like a fairly uncontroversial policy objective.


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