WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood predicted Monday that Congress will not have a new multi-year highway reauthorization bill ready before the current law expires at the end of March, while transportation advocates warned the role of partisan politics in slowing down and threatening to make LaHood's prediction a reality.
LaHood's statement, made at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Washington Briefing here, came as sources said the Republican House leadership might revise a controversial five-year $260 billion highway reauthorization bill sponsored by House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla. Opposition to the bill flared from both sides of the aisle, in part because it proposed dramatic changes to how mass transit programs would be funded.
"Now the House is trying to figure out what to do," LaHood told the attendees. "They can't pass a bill that hollowed out transit, that emasculated transit."
The last multi-year highway reauthorization law expired in 2009 and has been extended on a short-term basis eight times since then. LaHood said he doesn't see how the House can possibly go back to the drawing board and craft a shorter-term bill resembling a measure pending in the Senate before March 31.
"I don't see Congress passing a bill before this one runs out," he said.
At a roundtable discussion, lobbyists urged attendees to press their congressional delegations for action, but stressed the ponderous and political nature of the process. Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the slow going on the bill has "almost nothing" to do with policy. "It has everything to do with politics," she said. Lawmakers act when pressured by deadlines, she said, adding they might feel more inclined to take action with March 31 looming.
A major concern of those at the meeting is the financial health of the Highway Trust Fund, a pool of gas tax revenues and other user fees that has failed to keep pace with funding needs. The gas tax has not been raised in 20 years, nor indexed to inflation. LaHood made clear that the Department of Transportation would not support increasing or indexing the gas tax. A recent Congressional Budget Office study showed the fund could reach insolvency as soon as this year. Kavinoky said lawmakers might use upcoming discussions on tax reform to address the issue, but small financial provisions related to transportation are often the first to be cut from comprehensive tax packages, she said.
Jim Tymon, staff director for Mica's committee, said Republican House leaders are considering multiple options to muster support for Mica's bill, including a 5% cut to proposed funding and a reduction in the bill's timeframe from five years to as few as 18 months. That would put the bill more in line with the two-year proposal backed by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and James Inhofe, R-Okla. "Hopefully, by the end of the month, we'll have more clarity," Tymon said.
Homer Carlisle, a staffer from the Senate Banking Committee, said Mica's bill would be dead on arrival in the Senate. Carlisle suggested moving toward a compromise bill. He said there is a window of opportunity open for about another month or so, and after that the political climate of an election year will make action difficult.