By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to continue transportation programs for six years with no significant increase in spending, despite warnings from the White House and statehouses across the country that the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems are falling apart.
The bill, approved 363-64 with wide bipartisan support, authorizes $325 billion in spending through the 2021 federal budget year. But the bill provides only enough money to pay for the first three years because lawmakers were unable to settle on a politically acceptable way to pay for it all. The bill would continue current rates of spending adjusted for inflation.
At least $400 billion over six years is needed to prevent traffic congestion from getting worse, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said.
Most lawmakers lauded the bill as a major accomplishment because it would assure states and local communities that they can count on federal highway and transit aid for at least three years. State officials say they find it increasingly difficult to plan major construction projects because they can’t always be sure federal aid will be available.
Since 2008, Congress has kept the federal Highway Trust Fund teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, unwilling to raise the federal 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline and 24.4-cent diesel taxes. The fuel taxes, the trust fund’s main source of revenue, were last raised in 1993. Transportation aid has continued through dozens of short-term extensions and transfers of money from the general treasury to make up the gap between revenues and spending.
The bill is similar to a transportation bill passed by the Senate in July. Congressional leaders say they hope to quickly work out the differences between the two measures and send President Barack Obama a final bill before Thanksgiving. They also said they hope to find the money to pay for the last three years of the bill, but offered no details on how that might happen.
The measure is filled with changes to transportation policy that reflect the small-government, pro-business philosophy of the House Republican majority. But it is also a compromise that Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., spent months negotiating with Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the panel’s top Democrat. As a result, the bill also includes many provisions sought by Democrats or supported by lawmakers from both parties, and avoids some of the most divisive proposals.
“Republicans, Democrats, Americans care about our infrastructure and want to get to work without delays, want to get products to market, and want to get the raw materials to the factories that keep us competitive in this world,” Shuster said.
One change that gained wide support would direct $4.5 billion a year to interstate highways and other roads designated as freight corridors to increase capacity and relieve bottlenecks, and a grant program of more than $700 million a year for nationally significant highway and freight projects.
The bill also renews the charter of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which Congress allowed to lapse in July. The bank helps finance the sale of major U.S. products like Boeing planes and General Electric aircraft engines to foreign customers. Tea party conservatives oppose the bank, calling it “corporate welfare.” Boeing, the nation’s largest exporter, faces fierce competition Airbus, which is supported by a European export-financing bank.
The measure was the first major bill on the House floor since Rep. Paul Ryan became speaker, and it reflected the Wisconsin Republican’s promise to give rank-and-file lawmakers greater clout in shaping legislation — something they complained they lacked under Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who resigned under fire last week.
More than 100 amendments were debated on the House floor over two days. But scores of other amendments were blocked from consideration by GOP leaders, including a proposal by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., to raise the gas tax, and another by Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., to tax profits U.S. corporations park overseas and use that tax to pay for transportation programs.
The Obama administration has offered a similar tax proposal, and Ryan has backed the general concept. But negotiations between Ryan and Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, failed to produce an agreement. Such a one-time cash infusion also wouldn’t solve the trust fund’s long-term problems.
The administration has complained that the House bill doesn’t contain enough money. Keeping funding steady won’t keep up with rising population and aging infrastructure, the White House said in a statement. “The Congress should be thinking big, not locking in a worsening system.”
Even maintaining status-quo spending on transportation requires Congress to raise more revenue or cut spending elsewhere. Unable to come up with their own solutions, the House chose to embrace the same money-raising provisions that the Senate included in its transportation bill, even though many in the House had previously derided them as budget gimmickry.
One provision, for example, assumes $9.1 billion can be raised by selling oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at $89 per barrel, about twice the current price. Another assumes $5 billion can be raised by having the IRS use private debt collectors to recover back taxes, something that in the past has cost the government more than it raised.
The White House and safety advocates also objected to several GOP provisions added to the bill that they said would undermine safety. One would require that the Department of Transportation stop posting safety ratings of trucking companies and interstate and tour bus operators. The trucking industry complains that the department’s methodology is flawed and unfair. Another provision sought by the railroad industry would put new obstacles in the path of a Transportation Department rule issued in May that requires trains transporting crude oil be equipped with brakes that automatically stop each car at the same time rather than sequentially.