House to vote on 5-month highway funding extension today

By Sean Reilly | 07/15/2015 07:49 AM EDT

The House is barreling toward speedy passage of an almost five-month extension of highway and transit programs, setting a floor vote for this afternoon, just two days after the bill was introduced.

The measure, H.R. 3038, would prevent a partial cutoff of federal transportation funding at the height of the summer construction season when the current authorization expires at the end of the month. With the help of an $8 billion bailout for the perennially strapped Highway Trust Fund, it would also maintain current spending levels through Dec. 18.

Under an hourlong debate framework approved yesterday by the House Rules Committee, no amendments will be permitted.

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The legislation would mark the latest in a series of stopgap funding measures; its sponsors, however, portray it as a bridge to a longer-lasting fix.

The bill would ensure that "construction continues while we work toward a package that could close the trust fund’s shortfall for as many as six years," Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), respective chairmen of the House Ways and Means and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees, said in a joint statement earlier this week.

"We urge all members who want some long-sought stability in our highway and transit programs to support this critical extension."

While Senate Republicans appear to be coalescing around a two-year extension, they have yet to explain how they would cover the cost under congressional budget-scoring rules intended to avoid adding to the federal deficit (E&E Daily, July 14). Speaking to reporters yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced guarded optimism about the prospects for a longer-term bipartisan measure but volunteered no details.

"We’ve had some conversations inside our conference about a way to pay for that, and I’ve also had conversations with prominent Democrats that were involved in this issue that we’re hoping to be able to come together behind some way to get a multiyear highway bill," McConnell said.

The House bill would pump almost $8.1 billion in general Treasury revenue into the trust fund. To offset the cost of the transfer, it would rely on more than a half-dozen different "pay-fors," several of which are designed to help the IRS do a better job of collecting taxes. They appear to be similar to offsets unsuccessfully pushed last year by the Senate Finance Committee when an earlier transportation funding extension was making its way through Capitol Hill.

At the time, then-Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) refused to consider them, calling it "inconceivable" that the House would give the IRS more authority "to audit and investigate taxpayers simply so Washington can spend more money."

Camp has since retired. And Ryan spokesman Doug Andres did not reply to a request late yesterday to characterize the relationship between the tax-related offsets proposed in last year’s Senate bill and the current House measure.

In an email, Andres said they "are strictly limited to measures that help ensure people pay the taxes that they already owe," adding, "House Republicans have overwhelmingly supported similar compliance provisions during this Congress."

The House bill is also notable for the absence of major "pension smoothing," a widely derided mechanism that allows companies to temporarily lower legally required payments into their employee retirement programs as a means of goosing taxable income.

Whatever its merits or drawbacks, pension smoothing was critical to offsetting the price tag of last year’s extension, as well as the cost of a roughly two-year highway and transit authorization signed in 2012.

But there has been widespread speculation that Congress has tapped out its value as a budget offset; in a brief interview last month, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures, said that he did not expect pension smoothing to be part of the next transportation funding extension.

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