It’s all built up to this.
Having dutifully slogged through a few small-ball bills since Chairman Bill Shuster took over the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the last Congress, the panel finally is ready to tackle its most lucrative and complicated puzzle—the highway bill. And for the first time, the most crucial policy decision actually is out of the committee’s hands: How much can the government afford to spend?
“We could have done this bill three months ago if we had the dollars. I think everybody wants it,” Shuster said. “It’s driven by the dollars.”
The law authorizing money for roads and transit expires May 31. If Congress does nothing to revive it, construction projects across the country will be halted. Jobs will be lost. Potholes will get worse. Governors will rant that Congress has walked back from a promise to support something as fundamental as highways.
It will cost about $10 billion just to extend the law until the end of the calendar year. It will cost some $89 billion to authorize the same level of funding for five or six years. There is no readily available money in the Treasury to pay for it. There is nowhere to hide.
This is the moment that’s been approaching since the beginning of 2011. That’s when House Republicans determined that they would no longer tolerate earmarks, a major component of previous transportation bills. They also said the renewal of the five-year legislation—traditionally a giant bill of several hundred billion—needed to be paid for like everything else. There would be no off-budget special exemptions. Oh, and don’t forget the other GOP decree: no new taxes.
Four years later, the transportation chiefs in Congress have used every possible way to squeeze money out of domestic programs and keep the highway and transit networks afloat. Now they must reckon with a few uncomfortable truths. One, the country’s infrastructure still needs money for upkeep. (Ideally, the system should be undergoing costlier upgrading.) Two, no one in Congress or the transportation community is willing to endure another year or two of short-term extensions. Members say they can cope with an extension through the summer, and maybe even the fall. But come the end of the year, it’s time to go big.
“I want to get this thing done, even before the end of the fiscal year [of Sept. 30],” said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe last week. He and ranking member Barbara Boxer are teaming up to write a long-term transportation bill without a funding mechanism. Together, they recently brought business and labor lobbyists to Capitol Hill to ask for a fully-funded long-term bill in one unified voice.
FINDING THE MONEY
Enter the tax writers. In the House, the Transportation Committee is waiting for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to figure out a tax package that will raise enough money to cover the costs of a long-term bill. Aides from both Republican and Democratic transportation offices say they are ready to go with their part of the bill as soon as they get the funding green light.
Ryan is engaging in his own balancing act. To appease conservatives who don’t like the idea of revenue raisers, Ryan’s tax package will need to put forth at least a few long overdue changes to the corporate tax code. To appease Democrats, whose votes will be needed, the tax package needs to benefit more than just big corporations.
This is a sea change in the transportation policy world. In the past, the Transportation Committee was responsible for formulas that distributed billions to states for interstate highways and railroads. The source of the money wasn’t an issue. Most of it came from the highway trust fund, which draws in money from a federal gas tax. More lenient budgeting rules allowed lawmakers to draw from general coffers to cover shortfalls. Back then, the trick of passing a bill was writing the formulas such that everybody was happy, or at least not ridiculously unhappy. For the sulkers who threatened to oppose it, an earmark or two might bring them around to a “yes.”
Now all those legislative tools are gone. The only funding number the Transportation Committee cares about is the bottom line. Paul Ryan has assured them he is up to the challenge. “He said, ‘I’ll find the money.’ He said, ‘But you guys gotta find the long-term solution,’” said ranking member Peter DeFazio.
In the interim, they wait. While they’re waiting, they make sure they have the votes to pass it. Shuster spends a lot of time courting old-timers in the transportation community, keeping them abreast of the latest developments. He tells them that their job is to keep up the pressure on their representatives, particularly Republicans. A tricky public relations challenge of the past four years has been keeping highway and transit issues afloat in a political conversation that has been drowned out by sequestration, government shutdowns, and fiscal cliffs.
Shuster also has kept transportation in the spotlight (more or less) by finding new stakeholders. He has spent a fair amount of time learning from Silicon Valley investors and encouraging them to get involved in the political process. He is a big fan of technology that eventually will yield a driverless car. He has even taken a few spins in a prototype.
“Make it sexy,” Shuster said. “That’s why I got in a driverless vehicle, because I figure everybody would pay attention. To be in a car that drives itself, that’s the future.”
FIRE FROM THE RIGHT
There is another challenge for Shuster and the committee on the Right. Spurred on by small-government groups like the Heritage Foundation, a hefty chunk of House Republicans will question any federal funds for transportation. They are definitely not on board with $89 billion in taxpayer money for highways. This is a far cry from the Republican Party of 10 years ago, when then-chairman Don Young bragged about the amount of money going into each member’s district in a $286 billion bill.
Heritage Action, the Heritage Foundation’s lobbying wing, is advocating legislation to cut the federal gas tax by about 80 percent. That extra money should stay in the states, Heritage says. A bill reflecting this view was introduced in the last Congress. It never had a chance of passing, but its sentiment complicates the politics of passing a highway bill. The tea-party wing in Congress doesn’t believe transportation is a federal issue. They want the states to find their own transportation solutions. “If they want to build a big pipeline system, or if they want to build a D.C. street car, more power to them,” explained Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler.
That means Shuster has to negotiate with Democrats to get anything accomplished. There are enough Heritage-fueled “no” votes in the GOP caucus to make a Republican-only transportation bill difficult, if not impossible, to pass.
The number of organizations that lobby the committee only makes these hardcore conservatives more wary of its legislation. Shuster was the top recipient of transportation-related campaign donations last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That makes sense. He is the chairman, after all. But it can look damning to people suspicious of old-style Washington legislating.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
But that’s the kind of legislating that Shuster practices. On the committee, Shuster has eased his newer Republican members into the world of transportation with lesser-known bills. In the last Congress, he painstakingly walked them through a long-overdue water-resources proposal that he cosponsored with Democrats. It passed committee and the House overwhelmingly. This year, he worked in the same manner to pass an Amtrak reauthorization bill, again with Democrats. Amtrak is a more controversial topic for the GOP than dams and canals, and 101 Republicans opposed the rail bill on the House floor.
Now Shuster has laid the groundwork in the GOP for a major highway and transit bill, understanding that he won’t please everyone in his own party. But Republican committee members now know how he works and that he will listen to them. The newer, more skeptical ones also have a better sense of the importance of fixing crumbling bridges. Shuster’s behind-the-scenes efforts have gotten him to the point where he can make this statement without fear of retribution: “I believe it is a core function of the federal government to partner with the states and the locals to build a national transportation system—to build it, to rebuild it, and expand it.”
Those would have been fighting words for a lot of newly elected Republicans in 2010. Shuster’s predecessor, Rep. John Mica, even tried to cut federal transportation funding by one-third. He quickly had to walk back from that proposal and wound up seeing his own rewritten highway measure gutted by the Senate.
When Shuster took the gavel in 2013, he made sure to address the small-government concerns head on and go from there. “Bill made a point of talking to his people a lot, that they have evolved into more pragmatic infrastructure proponents and less and less ideological,” said DeFazio. “Because ultimately, that’s where infrastructure leads you. It isn’t ideological. It shouldn’t be ideological.”
Ideological or not, committee members now need to do something that’s never been done before. They need to usher a long-term, fully-funded transportation bill through a difficult tax-writing maze and to the House floor. Then they need to find the votes to pass it. If they succeed, they will all have bragging rights. If they fail, the problem will only get worse and the solutions more elusive. This is their moment, and they all know it.