Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Passing Short-Term Highway Extension, House Chooses Lesser of Two Evils

Despite having nine months' notice, Congress once again ran up against a deadline and forced itself to make a difficult and avoidable choice. This time, that choice was to either let the Highway Trust Fund run dry - thereby delaying or canceling highway maintenance projects across the country at the height of construction season - or pass a short-term extension that kept projects running but perpetuated the uncertainty and frustration over the fate of the trust fund and the projects it supports.

The House chose the latter, passing a two-month extension 387-35. This means Congress will again have to take up the issue in July. Given their track record - they've passed 23 short-term extensions over the past decade - one could reasonably expect they might again run out the clock this summer.

Just about everyone involved is disappointed, from House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) ("This two-month extension was not my preference") to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) ("The consequences of not doing it [the extension] would be very, very negative"). Still, despite inching closer and closer to the deadline, the heightening sense of urgency never put a long-term deal within reach and just about everyone bit the proverbial bullet and voted for the short-term fix.

The ultimate goal here - the metaphorical Holy Grail that has eluded lawmakers for so long - is a five-year bill that puts the Highway Trust Fund on a stable long-term fiscal path. But this requires raising revenue, and as I've stated before, it's hard to find agreement between Democrats and Republicans on where that money should come from. (The bill passed tonight uses pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks to contribute $10.8 billion to the fund.) In lieu of sufficient revenue from the gas tax, Congress has had to borrow $68 billion from the General Fund since 2008.

To be sure, there's no shortage of ideas for a long-term solution, whether it's an increase in the gas tax, the creation of an infrastructure bank, or a reform of the corporate tax code as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) now wants to do. One might wonder if perhaps there are too many ideas on the table, and not enough discourse over the concrete ideas that have already been proposed. Congress must choose a path forward and begin working together on refining a proposal that is mutually agreeable to enough Members to get this done.

Meanwhile, 15 states - from Connecticut to Montana to Mississippi - have already delayed or canceled highway or bridge projects this year over uncertainty about the future of federal funding. This underscores the urgent need to tackle this issue. With 800,000 jobs and billions of dollars in desperately needed infrastructure projects on the line, we obviously can't afford to let the Highway Trust Fund deplete. But so too can we not afford to continue the political brinksmanship that has enabled Congress to neglect its responsibility to provide for the maintenance of our nation's infrastructure.

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