House GOPers Propose Filling Trust Fund With Stimulus Money

As their committee’s leaders butted heads with the Obama administration, a group of Republicans on the House transportation panel proposed to fill the $7 billion hole in the nation’s highway trust fund with unobligated money from the economic stimulus law.

mariodiazballart_kup5.jpgRep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) (Photo: SW Broward GOP)

The bill, offered yesterday by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and eight co-sponsors, has almost zero chance of passing in the Democratic-controlled Congress. But its appearance suggests that lawmakers whose sympathies generally lie with Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the House’s transportation chief — who is determined to pass a new federal bill this year — are likely to be diverted by the immediate task of filling the trust fund by August.

In his endorsement of the Diaz-Balart bill, Rep. Tim Johnson (R-IL) underscored the bipartisan appeal of Oberstar’s quest for a new bill. Johnson lamented the business in his home district that would be lost if the Obama administration won its fight for a transportation funding patch:

As a member of the Transportation Committee as well as the Highway
and Transit Subcommittee, I have been gearing up for the
reauthorization for many months. Elected officials from throughout the
District have spent time and energy preparing their plans and projects
with me and my staff in anticipation of this important reauthorization.
Now the administration is telling them to shelve it all.

The
result of this ill-conceived decision will be the loss of jobs,
critical infrastructure and economic development in [my] district
and throughout the nation.

Let’s forget for the moment that House Republicans voted against the stimulus en masse, which casts a dim light on their bid to take advantage of available economic recovery cash for highways. Here’s why the Diaz-Balart proposal could have a significant political downside.

By separating the need to fill the trust fund from a broader debate over transportation reform, it undercuts the efforts of Rep. John Mica (FL), Oberstar’s GOP counterpart, to pass a long-term bill that would tackle the nation’s persistent infrastructure funding problems.

Senate leaders already are tipping towards the Obama administration’s side, aligning with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s call for an 18-month extension of existing law and questioning whether anything can be done other than filling up the highway account.

"I do not oppose on principle the effort to improve federal transportation programs, but we cannot allow debates over these reforms to prevent us from saving the highway trust fund in a timely matter," Patty Murray (D-WA) the Senate’s transportation spending chairwoman, told LaHood yesterday.

Congress is a perennially time-crunched place, where the perception of crisis tends to dictate legislators’ priorities. The more lawmakers who define the transportation crisis as merely the fiscal health of the highway trust fund, the less willingness there will be to tackle the broader issues.

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