The enthusiasm among some lawmakers to finish a multi-year federal transportation bill seems to have fizzled over the long August recess. House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster is already talking about another extension.
In July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell teamed up with Senator Barbara Boxer to craft a three-year transportation bill that bore more than a passing resemblance to the current law, MAP-21. The House wanted more time and they promised to work on a long-term bill after August recess. McConnell accepted a three-month extension to let them do it.
But guess what? The August recess is over and hey, Congress is just really busy right now. There’s the threat of a government shutdown. There’s the Iran deal to fight about. There’s a whole slew of tax provisions to pass before they expire. There’s a debt ceiling to raise. There’s even another transportation authorization that expires first — this one for the Federal Aviation Administration. And then in the middle of it all: The Pope.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation has essentially told Congress not to sweat it because the Highway Trust Fund isn’t going to go bankrupt nearly as soon as expected. The supposed five-month extension is actually going to pay for transportation expenses for 11 months. Congress would still need to reauthorize the program soon, but it wouldn’t need to do the hard part: find more cash to keep it running. The slow pace of construction in winter means that the $8 billion Congress authorized will stretch till next June.
Boxer recently told an audience at the Public Policy Institute that she predicted (“with some trepidation”) Congress would pass a bill that lasts at least three years. Meanwhile, she has finally let go of her previous rejection of using a gas tax hike to fund a long-term bill. “We haven’t raised the gas tax since Clinton,” she said. “You could do a penny a month for ten months: You wouldn’t feel it and you would solve your problem.”
Her forecast was put to the test by Shuster yesterday, who first said that he expects another short-term surface transportation extension and then, just hours later, told Politico the House is hard at work on its own long-term bill and might even be ready to introduce it next week.