Ag Policy Blog

Congress Still Struggling to Roll on Down the Highway

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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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.…

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.…

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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8/11/2015 | 8:16 AM CDT
Driving an electric car on roads that you don't pay a dime to maintain isn't going to solve all the problems Jay. Time to put limitations on population and get the amount down to a sustainable level.
Jay Mcginnis
8/11/2015 | 6:05 AM CDT
Well Craig if I didn't drive a solar powered electric car you and your neocon cronies would accuse me of not walking the talk and I surely can't accuse you of not walking your talk,,, well maybe you should send your kids to Iraq or now Iran to realistically keep us awash in oil!
8/7/2015 | 4:35 PM CDT
Jays answer to everything is "I drive an electric car". Jay, how much diesel do you burn planting your crops? "I drive an electric car". Jay, how much did you pay back on the grant you got for the grain dryer? "I drive an electric car". Jay, what color is the sky? "I drive an electric car". Oh, and also "All GOP people are trying to murder the whole world." Jay, can you ever be realistic about anything? "I drive an electric car".
Raymond Simpkins
8/6/2015 | 1:32 PM CDT
Jay try putting 32000 mi on your car in one year. See how long that will take ya.
Jay Mcginnis
8/6/2015 | 6:54 AM CDT
Don thats great! It is weird that the deniers keep beating up solar and wind when it has gotten much cheaper and affordable despite the attempts to destroy it. Some electric companies want to tax people who own solar so they can make up missed revenues, and the they call progressives socialists? Electric cars are improving every year and in 2017 all cars should have over a 200 mile range as Tesla builds its battery factory. 32,000 miles and all I did was put air in the tire and charge with clean/farm made solar electricity! Maybe this fall we can dry corn by burning confederate flags, a renewable source of otherwise worthless material.
Don Thompson
8/5/2015 | 8:36 AM CDT
Jay, Good Job. My new solar panels are providing power to the farm and building credit for grain dryer operations this fall. I am not off the grid but their are affordable options even in my red state with a state government that has pledged to not support renewable fuels or cleaner air. They wish to remain in the 19th century and can't figure out why educated youth leave the state in droves.
8/5/2015 | 7:57 AM CDT
Keep pumping up the little car of yours Jay. What about the grain dryer and all the tractors you drive. When are you converting them to solar?
Jay Mcginnis
8/4/2015 | 10:08 PM CDT
Great idea Craig, its called a carbon tax and it will go to promote clean energy that doesn't need wars in the mideast or cause climate change. I hate so much that we sprint over 900 billion dollars and 5000 US lives as well as the Million Iraqi lives that I promised to use my own solar produced electricity to power my car. It is working great and at over 32,000 miles and only put air in the tires I can see why the oil sheiks hate them! Just think, you wouldn't be sending money to the Mideast to support groups like Isis if you drove with solar electric!
8/4/2015 | 8:08 AM CDT
It is time that all fuel is taxed the same for all users. My city decided that everyone in town had to pay for the new baseball stadium even though I have never been to that stadium. It is time to put the same tax on every gallon of fuel, no matter if it is used driving on the road or not. If you own a four wheeler that has never touched a road you have to pay the same tax as someone who drives a car only on the roads. Time to get rid of this stupid off road tax reduction idea on fuel. If you use the fuel, you pay the same tax, no matter what the use of the fuel is. If you don't like it, start driving a solar powered tractor.
Raymond Simpkins
8/3/2015 | 8:49 PM CDT
Thats because everything Obama wants is Stupid.
Jay Mcginnis
8/1/2015 | 11:37 AM CDT
The GOP is doing what their constituents put them there to do, say no to everything Obama wants.