They are the nuts and bolts of government responsibility: helping to provide for highways, bridges, canals, ports, and other infrastructure.
But the federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, and so far there has been little action to deal with the looming crisis. Meanwhile, although both chambers passed waterway-projects bills last year, a House-Senate conference set up in November has yet to announce a deal.
With a two-year budget agreement in place, many said lawmakers would have time to attend to other pressing needs. But amid ongoing fights over Obamacare, Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, and other politically-charged issues, basic public-works needs remain unresolved.
There is talk this week — including from conferees themselves — that a deal to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the first Water Resources Development Act since 2007 could at last be announced, perhaps within days. Whatever is unveiled, however, could still be hit with resistance from some outside conservative groups, which object to the spending and don't believe the bill's reforms go far enough.
"Negotiations take time," said Jim Billimoria, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster. The Highway Trust Fund is in more dire condition. Neither chamber has even passed a bill, and the Congressional Budget Office says the fund's balances are almost exhausted and federal payments to states for projects starting this summer will have to be delayed. About one-quarter of the spending in states and localities for transportation and infrastructure needs come from the federal government.
There is, however, a sense of urgency setting in. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said this week that her committee will soon begin marking up a highway bill that would set funding at current levels, adjusted for inflation. Shuster has said he hopes to get a highway bill marked up by spring or summer.
"Many states have already announced that they are postponing or canceling critical transportation projects due to the fear that federal funds will be delayed or cut off. This will have a domino effect that will be felt throughout the economy," Boxer warned in testimony Tuesday to the Senate Finance Committee.
She added, "It is critical for our nation to continue investing in our aging infrastructure, and we must work together to find the sweet spot for a dependable, bipartisan source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund."
But how to pay for a new highway bill remains the major question. And it will be a tough one for a Congress that will be away from Washington for large chunks of time the rest of this midterm-election year. Added difficulty will come as outside groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action persist in arguing that transportation authority and funding should be turned back to the states.
A CBO expert said this week that in order to pay for a highway bill, lawmakers must either cut highway spending; raise revenues earned from taxes collected on gasoline, tolls, or other transportation-related activities; shift money from the general fund; or choose some combination of the three.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said Tuesday that it's going to take $100 billion just to keep the trust fund solvent for six more years. But he said that talk of Congress doing some type of temporary fix to resolve the highway-funding dilemma is "not the answer." "Relying on short-term policies, emergency patches, and temporary extensions makes forward-looking strategies impossible," he said, adding that when it comes to infrastructure, planning ahead "is absolutely essential."
The Obama administration has floated the idea of reversing a prohibition on states collecting tolls on interstates to help raise revenue for roadway repairs, part of a more than $300 billion White House transportation bill.
But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other House Republicans already have indicated that such options, including raising gasoline taxes, are a no-go. Cantor on Wednesday criticized policies he said were coming from the administration "that make it just tougher for working, middle-class families to afford to drive on our roads and drive cars and fill their tanks up."
"So we're going to look for the kind of creative solutions that we can adequately fund our construction needs without taxing the working middle-class family," he said.