House Passes Highway Bill — But Nobody is Very Happy About It

An aerial view of Interstate Highway 405 in Los Angeles is seen on June 12, 2013.
National Journal
Billy House and Fawn Johnson
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Billy House Fawn Johnson
July 15, 2014, 3:03 p.m.

Nearly as many House Re­pub­lic­ans as Demo­crats voted on Tues­day to pass a bill to keep fed­er­al high­way pro­jects tem­por­ar­ily run­ning in­to the next Con­gress, des­pite pres­sure from two in­flu­en­tial out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups to op­pose the meas­ure.

Ap­proved in an over­whelm­ing 367 to 55 vote, the bill would provide $10.8 bil­lion more for the fed­er­al High­way Trust Fund. That amount is pro­jec­ted to be enough to keep the fund solvent through May. Back­ers in­cluded 181 Re­pub­lic­ans and 186 Demo­crats, while 45 Re­pub­lic­ans and 10 Demo­crats op­posed it.

The bill is likely to be­come law only be­cause the Sen­ate and the White House are out of oth­er op­tions. No one is par­tic­u­larly happy about it. It doesn’t solve any long-term prob­lems, and in less than a year it will put law­makers right back where they have been.

“This is Ex­hib­it A of con­gres­sion­al dys­func­tion,” said Rep. Peter Welch of Ver­mont, a Demo­crat who voted against the bill be­cause he thought it was a farce. “We’re passing short-term fund­ing for what we all agree is a long-term prob­lem.”

For now, however, the le­gis­la­tion would avoid the steady re­duc­tion of fed­er­al funds that Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx has warned will be­gin on Aug. 1. By the end of the month, that re­duc­tion in fed­er­al funds would be about 28 per­cent. For some states, that would mean half of their money would be gone. For oth­ers, the re­duc­tion would be less ser­i­ous. In total, fed­er­al fund­ing makes up about one-fourth of all sur­face trans­port­a­tion spend­ing.

The vote to ap­prove the meas­ure rep­res­en­ted a set­back for con­ser­vat­ive groups Her­it­age Ac­tion and Club for Growth. They have lashed out at its use of pen­sion-tax changes, and such things as money from a fund to re­pair un­der­ground fuel-stor­age tanks, as budget gim­micks — all de­signed, they say, to bail out what they view as a waste­ful and in­ef­fi­cient pro­gram to be­gin with.

Both groups had warned law­makers they would in­clude this vote on their le­gis­lat­ive score­cards. But this time, un­like some past votes on fisc­al or fund­ing is­sues, that did not seem to mat­ter to as many Re­pub­lic­ans. And watch­ing from the across the Cap­it­ol, Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair Patty Mur­ray praised the Re­pub­lic­an-led House.

“It’s en­cour­aging to see Re­pub­lic­ans in the House have chosen to push aside their tea party fringe and voted to at least pre­vent a short­fall that could de­rail or delay crit­ic­al high­way pro­jects at the peak of con­struc­tion sea­son,” Mur­ray said in a state­ment. “Work­ers and busi­nesses shouldn’t have to pay the price for grid­lock and dys­func­tion in DC, and I am hope­ful that this takes us one more step away from a crisis.”

But Her­it­age spokes­man Dan Holler said, “No one really be­lieves today’s bill, which is chock full of gim­micks and rev­en­ue raisers, rep­res­ents good policy.” In­stead, he said, “the specter of a crisis, no mat­ter how over­stated, oc­ca­sion­ally causes sol­id con­ser­vat­ives to cast votes based on factors oth­er than the un­der­ly­ing policy.”

On the oth­er hand, Holler as­ser­ted, ap­pet­ite for real re­form is gain­ing mo­mentum. He poin­ted to le­gis­la­tion such as a bill in­tro­duced by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., that would phase out the fed­er­al gas­ol­ine tax and turn over most of the fed­er­al trans­port­a­tion pro­gram to the states.

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