WASHINGTON -- A House committee took a step Thursday toward keeping highway and transit aid flowing to states just three weeks before transportation programs are forecast to go broke. The Senate was expected to take action on a similar measure later in the day.
The Ways and Means Committee approved by a voice vote a bill by its chairman, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., that cobbles together $11 billion in pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks to shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund through May 2015.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned that by the first week in August the fund will no longer have enough money to cover promised aid to states, and the government will begin slowing down payments. The fund is expected to reach a zero balance by the end of August. Some states have already begun to delay or cancel construction project due to the uncertainty of federal aid.
Foxx estimates that letting the account expire will mean 700,000 Americans losing their jobs.
Democrats oppose the Camp plan, saying it allows Congress to put off finding a long-term solution to the chronic money shortage that has kept transportation programs teetering on the edge of insolvency since 2008.
An amendment by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., that would have committed Congress to passing a six-year transportation bill before the end of this year was defeated along party lines.
"It is a mistake to take the pressure off this Congress and kick it down the road," Blumenauer said. Congress will likely have more difficulty reaching an agreement on a long-term plan next year in the partisan atmosphere of a presidential campaign, he said.
But Republicans said more time is needed to reach a long-term solution. Camp said he wanted to fund the program through the end of 2015 to buy even more time to work on a longer-term bill but settled for May because he couldn't find enough money in tax increases or spending cuts.
"A funding package that just goes to the end of 2014 would only create a larger crisis in December," he said.
Earlier this year, Camp rolled out a tax reform plan that included an $126.5 billion, eight-year investment in the Highway Trust Fund but lawmakers dismissed the idea of doing a major tax overhaul before an election.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters he intends to bring the new, short-term bill up for a vote in the House next week. It's not clear, however, whether Boehner has enough votes to pass the measure without Democratic support.
- America's roads are running out of money
- Obama sounds the alarm on looming Highway Trust Fund shortfall
Some GOP conservatives oppose transferring money from the general treasury to transportation programs, saying they want to limit highway and transit spending to money raised by federal gasoline and diesel taxes. The fuel taxes are the Highway Trust Fund's main revenue source, but they haven't been raised in 21 years and aren't keeping pace with spending. Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, which is influential with conservatives, called the Camp bill a "spend now, pay later" plan.
Democrats and at least one Senate Republican have also criticized the bill for paying for less than a year's worth of transportation spending with revenue that is expected to be collected over the next 10 years.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and the committee's senior Republican, Orrin Hatch of Utah, reached an agreement late Wednesday on a plan that looks much like Camp's, although it relies less on pension tax changes for revenue and more on steps to ensure the earned income and child tax credits are being used only by people who qualify for them.
The key difference is that the Senate plan sets aside money for transportation aid but doesn't extend the government's authority to spend it beyond Oct 1. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is responsible for legislation to extend authority for transportation programs, but the committee's chairman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has been adamant that Congress should pass a six-year transportation spending bill before Dec. 31.
That position is shared by the White House and transportation interest groups, including state and local officials, construction-related industries, transit agencies, labor unions and businesses that say the nation's eroding infrastructure is preventing their products from getting to market and their employees from getting to work.
In a speech last week at the Georgetown Waterfront Park, President Obama pointed to congressional inaction on the Highway Trust Fund as a sign of Republican obstructionism.
"It's not crazy, it's not socialism, it's not the imperial presidency. No laws are broken. We're just building roads and bridges like we've been doing for the last, I don't know, 50, 100 years," Mr. Obama said. "But so far House Republicans have refused to act on this idea. I haven't heard a good reason why they haven't acted. It's not like they've been busy with other stuff. No seriously. I mean they're not doing anything. Why don't they do this?"
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave America's infrastructure a D+, estimating the country needs $3.6 trillion in investment by 2020 to get its bridges, roads, schools and other public structures up to snuff.