The Highway Bill Needs a Lift

To get its most important measure done, the Transportation Committee will require outside help—and cash.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 8: Northbound lanes of the 110 freeway remain closed as firefighters battle a fire that destroyed a seven-story apartment building under construction on December 8, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The fire also damaged nearby high-rise buildings and shut down freeways, causing massive traffic problems for morning computers. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
April 22, 2015, 5:30 p.m.

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.

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