Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says "failure is not an option" when it comes to keeping the Highway Trust Fund afloat through August. House Republican leaders agree. "Failing to provide additional funds would mean a disruption of ongoing construction projects—right in the midst of the construction season," they said in a recent memo to their members.
Nobody wants the trust fund to run out, which will happen if Congress doesn't act. That's the good news. The bad news is that members are only now talking about what to do about it. It would take about $15 billion to extend the current highway and transit program for one year. House Republicans came up with the idea of funding an extension by eliminating all but priority and express mail delivery on Saturdays, which would bring in a little less than $11 billion. Some Democrats sniffed, calling the proposed pay-for a "gimmick." But hey, gimmicks may be what we need right now. And this one that even President Obama has supported.
Wyden has asked his committee members to bring him other ideas for long-term and short-term solutions this week, with a goal of finishing a bipartisan deal by the end of June. Cue more gimmicks.
This is all fine and good, but it's not enough. The Washington Post editorial board outlined the broader transportation problem in a stinging op-ed last week. Congress simply can't hobble from one Band-Aid solution to another, it said. "If the nation's leaders are too cowardly to make obvious policy choices this year, they will have to develop some backbone before the next self-imposed transportation funding crisis. At the rate we're going, that won't be so long from now."
So where's the backbone? One place it could show up is in a broader tax overhaul being cooked up by Wyden and Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Both are veteran lawmakers who aren't afraid to push buttons. Wyden has in the past teamed up with Republicans on health care legislation that has made some of his party colleagues cringe. As for Hatch, I remember him chairing a Judiciary Committee markup on another issue years ago, where he said, "I've got everybody mad at me, so I must be doing something right."
Last week, Wyden and Hatch unveiled a series of hearings for June and July on a variety of tax issues as "a path toward comprehensive tax reform." None of the planned hearings specifically address the most obvious place where transportation revenue could be had—the federal gas tax—but the two tax writers said they would "continue to look for innovative ways to fix the depleted Highway Trust Fund."
With Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., vying to chair the House Ways and Means Committee next year, it's hard to imagine a gas tax hike happening. But stranger things have happened. Ryan has ruffled a few feathers in his own right.
A gas tax isn't the only big answer. Certainly, there is no shortage of Democrats who are willing to say that it's silly to require offsets for a critical asset like the country's highway and transit system. The question is, will a Republican also take that view, allowing Congress to actually pass something big and meaningful? Probably not, but that's the kind of backbone the Washington Post editorial board is looking for.
For our insiders: I have posed this question many times before, but let's do it once again with feeling: What are the viable solutions to pay for a long-term surface transportation reauthorization? In the absence of long-term solutions, what are some short-term Band-Aids or gimmicks that can get us through the year? Will Wyden be able to find a bipartisan solution in a month? What happens if he doesn't?
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