A new long-term transportation bill is dearly sought by many in the capital -- Democrats, Republicans, business and labor -- but the Hill's spending stalemate is laying bare the political challenge of selling significant new infrastructure investment to a Congress consumed by thrift.
The odds of a government shutdown by week's end shot up yesterday as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) slammed Democrats for resorting to budgetary "smoke and mirrors" in order to reach the $33 billion in spending cuts for the remainder of fiscal 2011 that all sides had appeared to coalesce around in recent days. Among the Democratic proposals to reach that magic number is revoking unused transportation funds, a move that could put further stress on state infrastructure officials already struggling to keep road, rail and bridge projects on track without a new federal bill.
"It shouldn't have to be done," the Environment and Public Works Committee's top Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said yesterday when asked about the prospect of budget negotiators looking at cuts to unused transportation spending authority. "That's a cop-out."
Unspent transportation funds are a perennial target for congressional appropriators looking to wring out savings with a minimum of immediate pain for high-impact programs. Infrastructure advocates faced billions of dollars in cuts to spending authority last summer after states had faced $8.7 billion in similar slashes the previous year that ultimately were reversed (Greenwire, Aug. 20, 2010).
But the current consideration of cuts comes as lawmakers continue to tout the nation's built environment as a rare source of apolitical accord. EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) appeared last Wednesday with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to highlight their shared support of several financing programs aimed at leveraging federal dollars for more investment in transportation.
"When it comes to infrastructure, it's a different atmosphere," Boxer said last week, predicting that GOP support "for doing a good bill" would materialize once a new transportation bill is unveiled "at the right strategic moment, with other things behind us."
Yet the most pressing of those other matters is the budget debate that now may affect unused transportation authority. Moreover, the lack of a stable funding source to pay for the long-term bill envisioned in the Obama administration's 2012 budget -- a $556 billion measure, several hundred billion dollars of which would not be covered by gasoline tax proceeds -- is already drawing fire from Republicans.
Nearly two dozen GOP senators wrote to President Obama yesterday asking for an explanation of the "bipartisan financing" mechanism that his 2012 budget suggested. "As energy prices continue to increase, we are hopeful that this new revenue stream proposed by the administration would not be a new gas tax on American consumers," wrote the 23 senators, including pivotal swing votes such as Sens.. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
A Transportation Department spokesman responded by reiterating the White House's opposition to any gas-tax increase while the economy remains sluggish. "The Obama administration is committed to working with Congress," the spokesman said via email, on how to raise money for its preferred infrastructure bill.
Without a hike to existing gas-tax rates, the federal transportation trust fund is set to start running negative balances at the end of 2012, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Both Trumka and Donohue have urged that a higher gasoline tax be on the table, but given resistance on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the business-lobby chief said last week that even an infrastructure bill that uses available money, while falling far short of the White House's goal, would be economically beneficial.
"Whether you put more money in it or not, we need to do a highway bill," Donohue said, adding that states' willingness to kick in their share of infrastructure project funding is closely tied to federal action. "Just getting the bill done ... is money in the bank."
Brookings Institution transportation expert Robert Puentes agreed that a transportation bill of any size would be preferable to the current cycle of stopgap extensions, which have stretched on for about 18 months. But, he added, "whether or not we can pass a six-year bill that's $260 billion [funded with gas-tax money] and spread that around, I think, would be a challenge for states, and it would be an abrupt change."
Transit advocates, who also depend on the federal trust fund, were cool to the prospect of a smaller long-term transportation bill than lawmakers passed in 2005. Paul Dean, government relations director for the American Public Transportation Association, said his group would "not necessarily" agree with Donohue that a measure funded by existing gas tax proceeds would be better than nothing.
"It's hard to speculate at this point in time without seeing a solid proposal on the table," Dean said in an interview, adding that "we would have loved to see [the administration] go a little bit further" in its 2012 budget "but we're very encouraged by them at least acknowledging the level of investment that's needed to get our nation's transportation infrastructure on track."
As transportation interests await a solid proposal on a new long-term bill, a solid proposal for slicing spending in the second half of 2011 seemed to slip away from party leaders in a rush of finger-pointing.
After Boehner's statement blasted the transportation authority cuts and other Democratic proposals as "smoke and mirrors," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Democratic No. 3 Charles Schumer of New York released comments of their own urging the speaker to return to the table ahead of an anticipated White House meeting today.
"We take it for granted that because of the intense political pressure being applied by the Tea Party, the Speaker needs to play an outside game as well as an inside game," Schumer said. "As long as he continues to negotiate, it's OK by us if he needs to strike a different pose publicly."
Further underscoring the extent to which the budget dialogue has frayed, Boehner's office said last night that it had directed the House Administration Committee to prepare guidance for members on how operations would proceed "in the event Senate Democrats shut down the government." Boehner's office also said appropriators would release the outlines of a new spending measure that "provides us with a funding option if House Republicans choose to use it."
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) late last night unveiled another temporary funding measure to keep the government running for an additional week, "allowing time to finally begin honest negotiations," while also funding the Department of Defense for the remainder of the current fiscal year. He accused Reid of attempting to "abuse the budget process to conceal additional spending through phony offsets and gimmicks."
"My Committee has worked diligently and fervently to negotiate with the Senate on final agreement for funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year," Rogers said in a statement. "However, at nearly every turn, these negotiations have been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Reid."
The fate of more than a dozen House-passed provisions restricting U.S. EPA regulatory authority remained a considerable stumbling block, in addition to the GOP resistance to mandatory spending cuts in transportation and a handful of other arenas.
Reporters Katie Howell and Jason Plautz contributed.