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 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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