Is the Senate’s approval of a highway bill extension a step in the right direction or two steps back?
The Senate passed an extension of the highway bill through the end of December, which seems like it would be a move in the right direction.
But that one advancement forward may very well be one move in the right direction but two steps backward.
An analysis by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA)released to its members today follows:
The House of Representatives this week did not consider legislation approved February 24 by the Senate that, among other things, would extend the authorization for the federal highway and transit programs through the end of December and stabilize the Highway Trust Fund over this period.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said today the chamber will take up the Senate’s “Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment” (HIRE) Act next week. Unfortunately, the current short-term extension of the highway and transit programs expires February 28 and a lone GOP senator blocked an effort by House and Senate Democratic leaders to enact another short-term extension of the programs.
Although the House had passed its version of the surface transportation extension in December as part of a broader package that included a second round of increased infrastructure investment to boost job creation, the scaled back Senate bill ran into a series of obstacles. A number of House Democrats are reportedly upset their spending proposals were not retained in the Senate legislation.
The Senate bill also would violate House rules against adding to the deficit and a number of conservative-moderate Democrats have routinely objected to bypassing this prohibition. The House and Senate surface transportation extension proposals included several structural differences relating to the distribution of highway funds for the remainder of the year that caused members from a number of states to raise equity concerns. This issue, however, has been resolved and House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) will be supporting passage of the Senate measure.
While all of these concerns were factors in the House not acting on the Senate HIRE Act, the fact that the bipartisan congressional leadership spent February 25 at a White House health care summit should not be overlooked. As such, Democratic House leaders were not available yesterday to work through the inevitable difficulties involved in such high profile legislation.
House and Senate Democratic leaders had attempted to mitigate this situation by advancing a 30-day extension of unemployment insurance, COBRA health benefits, and the surface transportation program. The House passed the measure February 25, but Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who is retiring at the end of this year, blocked the legislation in the Senate. Bunning is reportedly upset the bill would add to the deficit and sought to have it paid for by cancelling unobligated spending from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. Democrats offered Bunning a vote on his proposal, but he rejected that suggestion (which would have likely been defeated) and is pushing for his plan to be included automatically in the bill.
With Bunning unwilling to relent and Democrats opposed to canceling stimulus funds, Senate leaders had few options. Both the House and Senate have adjourned for the week and the authority to expend funds from the Highway Trust Fund will formally lapse at midnight February 28. If this situation is not resolved, Federal Highway Administration employees could be furloughed beginning March 2 (although there is precedent to keep federal agencies open in cases where legislative authority is expected to be enacted).
While this situation will likely be short-lived, it is disappointing that political gamesmanship may interrupt a core and necessary function of government. Although the Senate may not be able to overcome Senator Bunning, the expected House passage of the HIRE Act would usurp the need for any additional short-term extensions.
ARTBA is continuing to urge all members of Congress to support prompt enactment of a long-term extension of the federal highway and public transportation programs that also ensures the Highway Trust Fund can meet its commitments for FY 2010. We will keep you posted as this situation continues to evolve.
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