The House on Tuesday voted to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration and the funding mechanism for highways, bridges, and railways, putting off the hard negotiations on infrastructure investment until next year. The Senate is expected to pass the same bill later this week, laying to rest fears from many in the transportation community that funding for either aviation or surface transportation would lapse and force another partial shutdown of the FAA or halt the revenues to the highway trust fund.
The extensions are causing some consternation in conservative circles. The Heritage Foundation urged Republicans to vote against the proposal because it sets surface-transportation spending (at current levels) well above the House Republican budget agreed to earlier this year. Despite that, the bill passed on a voice vote.
The FAA’s current spending authority expires on Friday. The surface-transportation authorization expires on Sept. 30. The six-month surface-transportation extension will retain the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax to continue past Sept. 30. That revenue allows the highway trust fund to remain solvent. Lawmakers say they will work out their differences on a longer-term highway bill in the interim.
The Senate and House both have unveiled outlines of surface-transportation legislation, but they are far apart on the specifics. House Republicans are proposing a six-year, $230 billion bill that cuts infrastructure spending by one-third. The cuts have met with resistance from Democrats and the business community, who say the country can’t afford to skimp on roads and bridges. In part because House Republicans’ budget constraints force dramatic spending cuts in transportation, Senate Republicans and Democrats are proposing a two-year, $109 billion bill that retains current spending levels.
The FAA, meanwhile, already has been the subject of hostile debate when House Republicans this summer tried to force Senate Democrats to accept policy changes to the aviation program on the previous stopgap funding measure. Senate leaders refused, and the standoff led to a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA, thousands of furloughed government workers, and some $400 million in lost tax revenue from airline-ticket sales.
Members of Congress also took some public-relations heat for the debacle. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., was labeled a “job killer” by union protestors over the August break, and Republicans railed against Senate Democrats for being unwilling to negotiate on a number of outstanding provisions.
Mica took the House floor on Tuesday to say the four-month extension of the FAA would give lawmakers time to work out their differences. “This is the 22nd extension, and I can guarantee it will be the last extension because we must and we will pass a four-year authorization,” he said.
This article appears in the September 13, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.