August 2015

CONGRESS KICKS HIGHWAY BILL DOWN THE ROAD

If you were following the progress of the highway bill the last week of July, your eyes might have glazed over a bit with both the House and Senate passing essentially competing bills then kicking the whole thing down the road past recess to the Fall by passing a stop-gap three-month spending bill to keep things rolling until they can get there act together. According to The Hill’sKeith Laing, The House voted July 28th to approve an $8 billion bill that would extend federal transportation funding until the end of October, sending it to the Senate with just two days to go before the nation's road and transit spending expired. The bill, said the report, passed in a 385-34 vote, with Minnesota democratic Rep. Betty McCollum voting present.

The following day, July 29th the Senate passed its long-term highway bill with senators voting 65-34 to approve their six-year bill, which funds federal highway and infrastructure projects for three years. Another The Hill report noted Democrats were split on the measure, with most of the caucus’s leadership voting against the bill negotiated by Kentucky republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and California democrat Senator. Barbara Boxer. According to The Hill 15 republican senators, including three 2016 presidential candidates, bucked McConnell and voted against the proposal.

As the dust settled on the Senate bill, its future was in question because the House had vowed to pass its own long-term highway bill after the August recess.

In their typical brinksmanship style, that Thursday, the same day the Senate passed its bill and the day before the deadline for the cutoff of funds, Congress sent President Obama a three-month bill to keep highway and transit money flowing to the states. The Senate approved the short-term bill by vote of 91 to 4. The House passed the same bill a day earlier, and then left for its August recess.

At $350 billion, the senate’s long-term bill would make changes to highway, transit, railroad and auto safety programs. However, says The Hill its sponsors were only able to find enough money to pay for the first three years of the six-year bill. “That's not as long as many lawmakers and the White House wanted, nor as much money,” said the report, “but it was enough to win the support of many state and local officials, transportation related industries, and labor unions who have been imploring Congress for years to pass to bill that will provide states the certainty that they can count on federal aid as they plan major construction projects.”

No kidding, but at the crux of the conflict between House and Senate is the fact that the Senate's long-term bill calls for the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, which purportedly makes low-interest loans to help U.S. companies sell their wares overseas. According to news reports, the bank's charter expired June 30 in the face of opposition from conservatives, who call it the worst sort of corporate welfare. Nevertheless, Republican leaders sought to downplay the squabbling between the chambers as they punted the highway debate to the fall.

With that typical sunny optimism so prevalent after passing any dubious legislation, lawmakers hope the 3-month patch -- the 34th short-term transportation extension since 2009 according to The Hill -- will be its last. Extending the government's authority to process aid payments to states through Oct. 29, the bill provides $8 billion to shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund through mid-December. Good timing because the fund's balance was forecast to drop below a $4 billion pillow and would likely disrupt payments to states. Of course there’s plenty in the bill that has little to do with highways or transportation although much of the trucking industry might support an amendment in the extension bill that fills a $3.4 billion hole in the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget, a gap threatening to force the closure of hospitals and clinics across the country.

Obviously Congress only has good intentions. Mitch McConnell said the passing of the stop-gap bill was a “Win for the country,” and that it would allow time for the House to craft its own long term bill. Great, can’t wait to see the final bill; but everyone knows what’s been paving the road to hell for years now regarding Highway Bill legislation and Congress seems to have plenty of black top.