I've probably worn out Tom Cochrane's "Life is a Highway," but there are still a few good highway songs left to reference such as Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Roll on Down the Highway." Since I'm writing about Congress here, I have to stick with highway analogies because Congress doesn't quite measure up to BTO's "Takin' Care of Business."
President Barack Obama signed off on the temporary bill Friday, but indicated his frustration with Congress over the inability to approve a long-term highway bill. He noted that the lack of a long-term bill makes it hard for governors and mayors to set priorities for roads, bridges, airports and ports. Instead, "we operate as if we're hand-to-mouth three months at a time," the president said. This freezes construction and makes it hard for companies to hire because they don't know if the funding will be there for projects.
"We can’t keep on funding transportation by the seat of our pants, three months at a time. It’s just not how the greatest country on Earth should be doing its business," the president said. He added, "I guarantee you this is not how China, Germany, other countries around the world -- other big, powerful countries around the world handle their infrastructure. We can’t have bridges collapsing and potholes not being filled because Congress can’t come up with an adequate plan to fund our infrastructure budget for more than three or five or six months at a time."
For now, the House and Senate voted to extend funding on the Highway Trust Fund through Oct. 29. The bill basically moved $8.1 billion from the Treasury to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it cash flowing until then.
The newest "stop-gap measure" marks the 34th short-term extension Congress has approved for highway projects since President George W. Bush signed the four-year $286 billion SAFETEA-LU bill in 2005. One of the criticisms of that bill was that it included more than 6,000 earmarks. It was actually one of the reasons Congress pushed to eliminate earmarks. Yet, earmarks were also part of the reason it used to be a heckuva lot easier to approve a highway bill.
In 2012 Congress approved a $105 billion, two-year highway program, the MAP-21 bill. Lawmakers haven't been able to get beyond that two-year mark because they simply can't commit to funding a six-year bill that would cash flow for that long. The key problem with a longer-term highway bill is that the Highway Trust Fund is operating at an average deficit of $15-$19 billion a year deficit. A CBO report last year estimated it would take roughly $100 billion more over six years to adequately cash flow the Highway Trust Fund.
One of the reasons for the deficit is revenue from the federal gas tax and diesel tax hasn't kept up with expenses. One of the big reasons for that deficit is better fuel efficiency. The taxes that pay for the trust fund also have remained flat for 22 years. Those include the 18.4-cent gas tax and a 24.4 cent tax on diesel fuel, last raised in 1993. If the taxes had kept up with the rate of inflation the gas tax would be about 30 cents a gallon and the diesel tax would be about 40 cents a gallon. Effectively, the average per-gallon gas price would be about 12 cents higher than today.
Still, the Senate did move to advance a six-year bill. On Thursday, the Senate voted 65-34 to approve the DRIVE Act (Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act.) Congress may not have mastered much, but lawmakers and their staffs certainly have mastered the art of acronyms.
The DRIVE Act would authorize $337 billion in spending for highway construction and other projects. The bill would also set up grains for certain projects and shorten the timeline for environmental reviews, as well as provide more funding for rail projects, according to National Journal. Another critical issue is funding the bill. The Senate bill isn't fully funded and uses some different one-time funding mechanisms to help offset the costs. http://www.nationaljournal.com/…
The Senate bill doesn't change the gas or diesel tax. It does, however, make it easier for states to add tolls. States generally have had to build new lanes or roadways to add tolls, but the bill would make it easier for states to add new tolls on existing roads. http://thehill.com/…
While House leaders have vowed to get their own long-term bill done, the House would effectively have 24 working days in September and October to pass their own bill and set up conference talks with the Senate over its legislation. That likely means lawmakers will have to vote on yet another extension to try to complete conference talks on a longer-term bill.
The DRIVE Act has other complications such as including language to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Conservatives have taken a stand that keeping the Ex-Im Bank from being renewed is a priority. Some House members are adamant about opposing any bill that would reauthorize it. They argue the bank's mission essentially amounts to corporate welfare. Supporters say U.S. businesses would be at an export disadvantage if the bank isn't reauthorized.
As a side note, the National Pork Producers Council noted Friday that the Senate bill has a couple of provisions NPPC backs. One is the "Ports Performance Act" that would require the Department of Transportation to monitor the speed of port activity as a way of alerting industry of another potential port slowdown. Late last year and early this year, West Coast ports saw work slow to a crawl as unions and port officials battled over a new contract. The slowdown angered people in a variety of industries dependent on exports. The other provision would permanently exempt livestock haulers from required rest breaks that apply to other truckers. Livestock groups have had to request waivers every year from the requirement because the breaks would essentially leave cattle and hogs out in hot conditions while truckers take the mandated breaks. DOT granted a two-year waiver from the provision this spring. Under the highway bill, the waiver would become permanent.
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