WASHINGTON — President Obama yesterday signed a one-month stopgap measure to keep the U.S. government — including bond-related programs — from shutting down while Congress tries to move forward with annual appropriations bills.
The continuing resolution, which was approved by the Senate on Wednesday and the House last Friday, keeps federal transportation programs funded at fiscal 2009 levels. It also gives the House and Senate a one-month buffer during which they can decide how long they should delay approving a new transportation law.
But while lawmakers continued transportation spending, they did not take action to prevent a statutory rescission from taking away $8.7 billion of contract authority that was unused by states as of Wednesday night. Transportation advocates had been panicked over the rescission, saying that unless it was repealed, states would be drained of $3 billion of pending project funds at a time when they already are faced with an unstable transportation funding environment.
Transportation leaders in the House had been pushing for a three-month extension of the current law — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU — which expired Sept. 30. But Senate committees with jurisdiction over transportation had approved an 18-month extension with the backing of the administration, prompting questions over which extension would prevail.
By Wednesday night, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was putting together a three-month extension to go along with the House bill. The Senate extension included a provision that would have prevented the rescission, according to the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Inhofe said that he and committee chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., “brokered a bipartisan agreement to use the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP, as an offset” for the $8.7 billion to conform with pay-as-you-go rules.
Instead, both chambers approved the continuing resolution with a simple extension of the current levels of federal aid to states and metropolitan areas for transportation.
“I have often thought that congressional inaction is a good thing, but in this case we have failed miserably to do our jobs,” Inhofe said in prepared remarks for a Senate floor speech yesterday.
By not approving the Boxer-Inhofe provision, Congress could cost the country 17,000 jobs “because states may be forced to cancel $500 million worth of projects,” he argued. “We are now stuck with a 30-day extension that cuts highway spending by 25% compared to 2009.”
Inhofe said he expects states to delay projects at a time when the last days of construction season are on the horizon.
Inhofe added that he had spoken to Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley, who said the state would lose $17.6 million, or about one third, of its usual federal aid for highways.
“They have a $28 million bond obligation, which leaves them only about $8 million for letting projects, instead of $26 million,” Inhofe said. “This means they will likely only be able to let three to four projects in November, the first letting of the new fiscal year, and none in December.”