Photo courtesy of flickr user localpeople
On Wednesday, April 18, the House passed the 10th extension (HB4348) of the long-term federal transportation program, SAFETEA-LU, by a vote of 293-127. While the vote would extend the federal transportation program through September, the House actually passed the bill to begin the conference process on a longer-term bill with the Senate.
After the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, senior members from each party “conference” to resolve disagreements. The committee drafts a compromise bill that both Houses of Congress can accept. Once that compromise bill has been passed by a conference committee, it goes directly to the floor of both houses for a vote, and is not open to further amendment. The Senate will conference with its bipartisan bill, the two-year MAP-21. MAP-21 passed the Senate on March 14 by a vote of 74-22.
It's imperative to begin the conference process on a long-term transportation bill, a critical part of improving the economy. Short-term extensions mean uncertain federal funding, which hamstrings states’ ability to plan transportation programs for the long term and limits their bonding ability. We’ve already seen states pulling back on construction spending for summer 2012 due to this uncertainty. If Congress does not pass a full authorization and instead passes another extension, diminishing gas tax revenues means federal transportation spending will be cut by 1/3 beginning this summer. Further, the ratings agency Standard and Poor's has warned that there are serious risks posed by inaction and extensions to the nation's transportation sector, and to the millions of jobs that rely upon it.
Conference will likely be contentious. Unlike previous extensions to SAFETEA-LU this one included five amendments, three highly divisive:
1. Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would transport oil produced from Canadian tar sands to Port Arthur, Texas. The White House has threatened to veto the GOP bill because of the Keystone addition, which it says bypasses longstanding practices for the approval of cross-border pipelines. The veto statement noted that a final pipeline route has yet to be decided.
2. Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act. This amendment would prevent the federal government from regulating the hazardous waste that results from producing energy from coal and instead reserve that right to the states.
3. Environmental streamlining. This amendment removes environmental review rules, which could be construed as allowing all highway projects to bypass federal environmental review altogether.
Two other amendments included the House extension are:
1. RESTORE Act: This amendment guarantees that Gulf States receive 80 percent of revenues from the Clean Water Act fines resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
2. RAMP Act: This amendment requires all revenues collected through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be fully used for their intended purpose of harbor maintenance.
The extension passed with the support of 69 Democrats. House Democrats say they voted for it not because they support the Keystone XL Pipeline, but to go to a conference with the Senate to pass a long-term bill.
Though the Senate’s MAP-21 would likely pass the House, House leaders have refused to allow it for a vote. House Republican leadership has been unable to pass its proposed long-term transportation reauthorization, H.R. 7, a five-year, $260 billion bill. Democrats don’t support H.R. 7 because it eliminates dedicated transit funding, takes away local control of planning, and cuts funding for bike and pedestrian programs, high-speed rail, and programs that improve air quality. Further, H.R. 7 would allow construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is highly controversial, due to environmental concerns. What’s more, some are challenging the oil industry, saying it has inflated both job creation figures and projected declines in Midwest gas prices that would result from the pipeline’s construction. Moderate Republicans, like U.S. Rep. Dold, don’t like H.R. 7 because it cuts transportation spending and eliminates dedicated transit funding. Others think it is too large. (For reference, the last long-term transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, passed under President George W. Bush in 2004, was $284 billion.)
Senate and House members assigned to conference are expected to be announced early next week. Party leaders make the final decision on appointees.