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New Highway Bill Has Next Best Thing to Earmarks

Inhofe and Boxer joined to unveil their highway bill Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It may be tougher to grease the wheels for highway spending without earmarks, but the leaders of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee have come up with the next best thing.  

Under the proposal outlined Tuesday, the administration will have to get the committee's approval of a list of major transportation projects to be named later — a way for lawmakers to have some input on which bridges and highways get funded and which don't.  

The top four senators on the committee joined together Tuesday morning to unveil their portion of a new six-year highway bill, an issue which has long united a disparate group of lawmakers, from Republicans James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and David Vitter of Louisiana, to Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware.  

"This is the one area where Barbara and I love each other. We get along. We don't have any disagreements," Inhofe, the EPW chairman, said of his longtime partner on infrastructure issues.  

It is an unlikely pair that has had success when it comes to highways in the past, even if the two lawmakers can be like oil and water when it comes to issues like, well, oil and water.  

One piece of the new bill that could generate significant interest is a proposal for new grants for projects of high importance, such as bridges and highways that are critical to the economies of their communities or the nation at large. That comes with a process for congressional approval — highlighting the constitutional role of the legislative branch.  

Under the program, the Federal Highway Administration would submit a list of projects of between $700 million and $1.4 billion meeting requirements for the grants to the House and Senate transportation authorizing committees by January 1 of each year. The committees would then draft a joint resolution of approval of $350 million out of those projects.  

The process would restore to Congress some level of control over projects since the end of earmarks, and restore some of the shrunken post-earmark-world value of having a seat on the authorizing committees.  

Authorizations such as this aren't quite earmarks, but the plan could still draw the ire of critics of congressional-directed spending inside and outside of the Capitol.  

Carper explained to CQ Roll Call the concept was not entirely new.  

"A lot of folks reacted positively to it," the Delaware Democrat said of an earlier version. "Not just in the Northeast, but in other parts of the country as well. Sometimes it's hard under the rubric of our transportation laws and funding to do really big projects."  

To put the scale of project in perspective that could be considered by the Transportation Department for those grants, the Brent Spence and Tappan Zee bridges have been discussed.  

The obsolete Brent Spence Bridge is notable as the backdrop President Barack Obama used as a part of a 2011 infrastructure push. It connects Ohio and Kentucky , the home states of the current speaker of the House and Senate majority leader.  

"So, a lot of people like this idea. There's not enough money to go around to people in every state or maybe even in every region, but we'll set up a competition. Whoever has the best projects will get funded," Carper said.  

The highway bill itself, meanwhile, is far from a done deal.  

As veteran observers of the highway battles know, while compromises on the EPW portion of the bill are an important part of the process, the real question is how to address the funding shortfall within the Finance Committee related in large part to the declining value of the gas tax due to inflation and improving mileage standards.  

"I'm doing everything I possibly can, and we've got some ideas, but we'll just have to see," Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch said Tuesday. That panel has a hearing on transportation financing set for Thursday, a day after the EPW markup.  

The current authorization for surface transportation programs is set to lapse at the end of July, making at least a patch a must-pass bill. That bill will also be the venue for a vote on what will be then be a revival of the Export-Import Bank. "It's pretty obvious that that would be a place for this vote to occur," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.  

Still, despite the truncated timeline and the potential legislative Christmas tree leading into the August recess, Boxer said she remained optimistic for a full bill.  

"The pressure is mounting," she said.  

"I'm so proud to be here with Jim Inhofe. You know, he and I are the yin and the yang on a lot of other things, but on this subject he as a leading conservative, and me as a leading liberal, a progressive, we see this the same way," Boxer, the ranking member, said. "It has to be done."

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