A few weeks ago, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor published his list of bills the House will attempt to get through before the August recess. The transportation reauthorization was not among them.
Rumor has it that House leadership has put the kibosh on Transportation Committee Chair John Mica’s plans to get a bill out of committee and to the House floor in July. Supposedly, House Speaker John Boehner has told Mica not to mark up a bill, since it would just languish without a vote anyway.
This information came to us from a trustworthy source who is a few levels removed from the actual decision makers. (Streetsblog has a request in with Mica’s office to confirm.) Because it's a compelling rumor that makes a lot of sense in the current political context, please indulge us as we run through the possibilities, but do take it with a grain of salt.
All will be clearer next week, when Mica either introduces his bill or he doesn't -- though even that won't tell us everything, because introducing it and then keeping it stalled in committee would also likely be an acceptable option for leadership -- as long as it doesn't come to the floor.
All this is happening, of course, against the backdrop of the debt ceiling talks, as they rage (or whimper) on, with no solution in sight before an economic meteor (known as “default”) hits the planet. House Republicans are still saying they won’t accept any new taxes, leaving spending cuts as the only way to cut $1 trillion from the deficit. Their recipe for transportation? About a 33 percent cut, bringing transportation in line with current balance in the Highway Trust Fund. (The new formula bars spending based on anticipated revenues.) There’s not a state in the union that wouldn’t feel these cuts, deeply.
So, if it's true that Boehner has said no to the reauthorization, it actually makes a lot of sense. The House can’t pass a bill with such low levels of spending – there wouldn’t be any support for it. But the Republicans can’t possibly introduce a bill that violates their own spending principles right now, as they’re digging their heels in on spending cuts as a pre-condition to raising the debt ceiling.
Meanwhile, the Senate EPW Committee, by all accounts, is raring to go on its transportation bill draft, but the House usually goes first on all bills related to spending. The Senate could still introduce its bill and start holding hearings, but it’s unlikely to come to a vote until the House has passed its version.
All of this makes a straight extension of the current transportation bill – the option no one wanted – the most likely scenario.
The debt ceiling deadline is August 2, and if there’s no deal by then, there will be tremendous pressure on Congress to stay in session to figure things out. But there’s nothing Congress hates more than missing recess, so that seems unlikely (though right now, consensus seems even more unlikely, so your guess is as good as mine).
Assuming Congress does manage to take its recess, both chambers will be out from August 8 until after Labor Day. The current transportation bill extension expires September 30. What do you think the chances are that both chambers will introduce, pass, and reconcile new transportation bills in the three-and-a-half weeks they’ll have after recess ends? If you said “diddly squat,” you’re a pretty smart cookie.
Would the two chambers just extend the current bill until 2013, when the president election is over, a new House and Senate are seated, and a new conversation can begin on how to raise revenues? That’s more or less the idea behind a two-year bill, which the Senate appears to be supporting. It's possible the House could come back in September and agree to those terms, but that would be an awfully quick turnaround, especially since Mica's been insistent that the bill have a six-year duration.
The Senate’s bill, as far as we understand it, would buy Congress enough time to get past the elections, because it does involve a slight bump in spending. But a straight extension of the current bill wouldn't get us there. The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run dry next summer, so a SAFETEA-LU extension would run headlong into that impending crisis. So Congress will likely have to pass a short-term extension, coming back to the issue in early 2012 -- and actually solving it -- before the highway trust fund goes insolvent.