An eight-month extension of highway and transit spending and more money to keep the highway trust fund solvent moved closer to enactment June 15 as the U.S. House of Representatives passed such legislation (H.R. 5021) by a vote of 367 to 55. The bill also would continue the funding authority for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
“If Congress fails to act, thousands of transportation projects and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country will be at risk,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and a co-sponsor of H.R. 5021. “This legislation provides much-needed certainty and stability for states.”
The overwhelming vote on final passage doesn’t reflect the partisan clash over the duration of the extension. H.R. 5021 would extend the spending authority under the trust fund through May 31, 2015 – a date that happens to be in the next Congress.
Democrats generally want a shorter extension beyond the current Sept. 30 expiration in order to force Congress to act during a “lame-duck” session after the election. The thinking is that a longer-term bill and a tax increase to fund a larger highway program have a better chance after the election but before an anticipated Republican takeover of the Senate.
Under the rules for considering H.R. 5021 on the House floor, the bill couldn’t be amended, but Democrats tried the one option that remained for shortening the duration: A frequently attempted but rarely successful maneuver called a motion to recommit with instructions.
A motion offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) would have, in effect, extended authority only until Dec. 31, 2014. Blumenauer had unsuccessfully tried to amend H.R. 5021 in the same way during House Ways and Means Committee consideration last week.
The House rejected Blumenauer’s motion to recommit by a vote of 193 in favor and 227 against. No Republicans voted to recommit; only three Democrats voted against the motion.
“We are here with a questionable short-term fix because this Congress has refused to address its responsibility to fund our transportation infrastructure system,” Blumenauer said.
“Congress shouldn’t duck its responsibilities, but should pass a six-year plan and its funding into law this year," he continued. "We shouldn’t recess until we give the American people the transportation system they need and deserve to strengthen the economy, create hundreds of thousands of family-wage jobs, and improve transportation for families across the nation.”
Shuster argued that H.R. 5021 “in no way precludes Congress from continuing to work on addressing a long-term funding solution, and a long-term reauthorization bill, which remains a top priority for my committee. However, this legislation is the responsible solution at this time, ensures that we don’t play politics with these programs, and enables us to continue making improvements to our surface transportation system.”
The next step is for the Senate to take up its own version of the bill, which the Senate Finance Committee approved last week.
The Senate version is similar but not identical, so key legislators would have to work out a compromise and pass identical versions again.
A faster option would be for the Senate simply to pass H.R. 5021, but it’s unlikely that the House version would pass the Senate due to the funding options it uses to pay for the estimated $10.8 billion shortfall in the highway trust fund through May 31.
Also, some key Senate leaders – including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Environment & Public Works Committee – oppose an extension through May 31 as agreed to by the House and the Senate Finance Committee.
“Sadly, the House has kicked the can down the road and has decided to shirk its responsibility to fix the highway trust fund in this Congress,” Boxer said Tuesday in response to the House vote. “They have failed to send a message of certainty and confidence to the thousands of businesses and millions of workers who have asked us to act this year on a long-term solution for transportation.”
With Boxer’s insistence on a shorter-term extension it’s not certain that the Senate would pass even the Finance Committee’s bill in its current form let alone H.R. 5021 as passed by the House.
Meanwhile, the highway trust fund’s cash balance is nearly gone, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently warned state transportation officials to expect reduced payments without additional funding.
Although the Obama administration continues to push for a longer-term authorization for the highway program, it has indicted it would sign the short-term fix to keep money flowing to surface transportation projects