The House passed a seven-month transportation authorization bill Wednesday, buying Republicans some much-needed time to figure out how to write a long-term measure that doesn’t include earmarks or an increase in the unpopular gas tax.
Traditionally a vehicle for scores of highway, mass transit and other transportation-related projects, the reauthorization bill has become a symbol of Congress’ overspending ways and a prime target for Republicans on a cost-cutting spree.
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica said he was encouraged by Wednesday’s 421-4 vote to extend the current measure and hoped it would provide sufficient momentum to find a way to clear the longer-term bill before the end of September. But the Florida Republican appeared to acknowledge the challenges that he faces.
“Just getting agreement here” is an encouraging sign, Mica said, noting that “this is the first major piece of legislation [passed] without controversy. ... This gives us a little bit of time.”
“The only problem is the 434 other Members and 60 votes in the Senate. Other than that, I’d have it done already,” he quipped.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has made it clear to Mica that he will not bring a transportation bill to the floor that raises the gas tax, which is used to fund the Highway Trust Fund, or that calls for a fresh infusion of general fund dollars to the Highway Trust Fund.
The highway fund should keep the transportation program — and the thousands of projects across the country that rely on it for funding — afloat until next year. But with no new sources of revenue on the horizon, the pressure is on Congress to find a way to invest in highway infrastructure but not bankrupt the system.
Noting that in the past Congress has simply transferred general fund dollars into the Highway Trust Fund for infrastructure projects, a House GOP aide said the goal now is “before we hit exhaustion again, we will need to have a new policy in place to avoid the need for additional general fund transfers.”
Cantor hinted Monday at a new strategy, telling reporters that the short-term reauthorization approved this week was designed to provide Mica enough time to write a long-term bill that would “reflect the true nature of the Highway Trust Fund in its depleted state.”
Mica is also faced with the reality that the Republican Conference is more conservative now than in 2005, when Congress last passed a transportation bill. Most of the GOP’s 87 freshmen are deficit hawks and have expressed skepticism about the need for a massive transportation spending bill.
New Members have also been critical of earmarks, which have become the primary means by which Members have moved federal funds to state and local governments over the past three decades.
Some conservatives — including tea party ally Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) — have tried to massage the definition of earmarks to exclude transportation projects. But even Mica acknowledged how difficult it will be to get Congress to approve a transportation bill that includes them.
“We can do it without earmarks. I favor earmarks, but if we can’t do it,” Congress will find another way, Mica said.
GOP aides said Mica and other GOP leaders have done a good job of trying to placate conservatives’ concerns about infrastructure spending by trying to educate them about how the trust fund works and assuring them that no new revenue will be sought to pay for the bill.
Mica said he hopes the extension passed Wednesday will provide further reassurances, arguing that it demonstrates he is “working within the trust fund and not going outside” for funding.
“There’s no magic formula. Just a lot of hard work and communication,” he said.
Ranking member Nick Rahall called restrictions on what the committee can do in terms of earmarks and raising revenue for transportation projects the “giant elephant in the room” and acknowledged a path forward was still unclear.
But the West Virginia Democrat said he remains hopeful that “we can step up to the plate to do the job the American people, and American jobs, rely on.”
“I think it’s possible. ... It’s a process, but I believe we can pass a reauthorization” this year, Rahall said.
He said he also hopes President Barrack Obama becomes more engaged in the issue and helps provide momentum.
“The administration needs to get behind our efforts” Rahall said, who added that he has been encouraged to have heard Obama in recent weeks mention infrastructure investments “more times than in all of the last two years.”
Still, not all Democrats were convinced that a long-term reauthorization could be passed this year. “It will be a stretch to reauthorize it before this September,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) said in a floor speech Wednesday.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.