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Senate Transpo Bill Sinks Under the Weight of Its Own Chicanery

Last night, the Senate voted to proceed with the consideration of the transportation bill Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Barbara Boxer had worked out. It was just a day after the body had voted to block progress, objecting that they hadn’t had time to even look at the bill.

The policy elements of the bill are largely untouched from what we’ve already seen: the Environment and Public Works Committee’s DRIVE Act and the Commerce Committee’s section on rail and safety. Much of that was largely untouched from MAP-21.

A threat to eliminate TIGER was eliminated. A new formula-based multi-modal freight program is included. Some good language on Complete Streets appears to be gone. Advocates will feel better when the transit section gets fleshed out, and the Banking Committee is still MIA. This bill just doesn't include earth-shaking policy changes.

But truly, the uproar over it has never been about policy. It’s all about funding. You know this because you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years.

Because of the unreasonable and unyielding refusal on the part of just about everyone in the Washington political machinery to raise the gas tax, they’re left with a grab-bag of gimmicky pay-fors, or offsets, taken from other pieces of government programs. Here is the sad summary:

Image: ##http://crfb.org/blogs/senate-transportation-bill-finds-offsets-three-years-funding##CFRB##
Table: CFRB
Image: ##http://crfb.org/blogs/senate-transportation-bill-finds-offsets-three-years-funding##CFRB##

Combined with expected gas tax revenue into the Highway Trust Fund, these offsets cover three years of what is still being called a six-year bill. That fulfills McConnell’s singular goal of getting rid of this issue until after the 2016 election. And it means we’re going to have to have this same annoying conversation again in three years.

The provision eliminating Social Security benefits for fugitive felons was pulled after outcry from Democrats and the delightful Huffington Post headline, "Congress Can't Write A Highway Bill Without Punching Poor People In The Face." But there are plenty of offsets left on that list that are making people angry.

Not to mention, of course, that this bill is being funded by offsets and not fees related to transportation, as transportation bills (real bills, that is, not extensions) historically have been.

“The pay-fors in this bill are embarrassingly unrelated to transportation, increase the fiscal burden on future generations, and do nothing to sustain the program for the long-term,” said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation in an email. “The policy in the bill does little to change or improve how the money will be spent. It is a sad time for federal transportation policy.”

Divisive issues like selling off Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil, diverting funds that should be used to protect people’s mortgages, privatizing tax collection, and cheating hard-hit neighborhoods out of federal support aren’t the only problems. Republican presidential hopefuls are trying to attach other contentious issues to the bill: cutting Planned Parenthood funding, cutting funding for Congressional employees’ Obamacare premiums, and more. And then there’s the issue of the Export-Import Bank reauthorization that’s been dragging this process down for weeks.

So guess what, folks? This bill probably won’t pass. Even Boxer BFF Nancy Pelosi says she wants to just pass the five-month extension and give legislators time to write up a real bill. Five months is still not nearly enough time for Washington to grow up and raise taxes, though, so who knows what good that’ll do. Maybe they’ll find some more loose change and terrible ideas under the couch cushions.

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