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.
What We're Following See More »
President Obama became a surprise topic of contention toward the end of the Democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Sanders had challenged the progressive bona fides of President Obama in 2011 and suggested that someone might challenge him from the left. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she said. “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” replied Sanders, before getting in another dig during his closing statement: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”
It’s all about the 1% and Wall Street versus everyone else for Bernie Sanders—even when he’s talking about race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, he needs to appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters in coming states, but he insists on doing so through his lens of class warfare. When he got a question from the moderators about the plight of black America, he noted that during the great recession, African Americans “lost half their wealth,” and “instead of tax breaks for billionaires,” a Sanders presidency would deliver jobs for kids. On the very next question, he downplayed the role of race in inequality, saying, “It’s a racial issue, but it’s also a general economic issue.”
It’s been said in just about every news story since New Hampshire: the primaries are headed to states where Hillary Clinton will do well among minority voters. Leaving nothing to chance, she underscored that point in her opening statement in the Milwaukee debate tonight, saying more needs to be done to help “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market” and immigrant families. She also made an explicit reference to “equal pay for women’s work.” Those boxes she’s checking are no coincidence: if she wins women, blacks and Hispanics, she wins the nomination.
Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.