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Democrats grudgingly approve a transportation extension bill with a risky timeline

On Tuesday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.


Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension. Image from C-SPAN.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that "a short term solution is not enough" or that it's "just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach" or that it's just "a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we're not creating more debt." But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an "abdication of our responsibility."

"Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill," he said. "We've had time. What we need is a decision."

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a "deliberate, thoughtful process."

"We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year," he said. "We didn't have one the year before that. We haven't had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge."

How long will the extension be?

The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

Wyden's bill also failed to include an expiration date. Senator Barbara Boxer is expected to introduce an amendment putting a December 31 date on itso that she would still be chair of the EPW Committee when the real bill gets negotiatedbut the juggernaut is already in motion toward a longer extension until May. By putting enough money in the bill to get there, Wyden was tacitly acceding to that timeline without overtly ruffling Boxer's feathers.

Even President Obama has given the green light to the House bill, though he also insisted that "Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he plans to schedule three floor votes before the August recess: the House bill, the Senate Finance Committee bill, and Boxer's December 31 plan.

Boxer, of course, doesn't refer to her own hold on the committee when lobbying for a shorter extension. She just says the longer one is "a really bad idea because the longer the patch, the longer the indecision, the more jobs lost, the more businesses go under."

Besides, now that presidential election seasons last for two years (at least), punting until May could easily bleed into much longer delays. After all, if it's too hard to pass a major spending bill in the run-up to a mid-term election, imagine the resistance to passing one during a presidential race.

A bill under a Republican Senate could be much worse

If the Republicans really do take control of the Senate in January, that means that the bill sent to President Obama's desk will be one crafted and approved by Republicans in both houses.

Control of the Environment and Public Works Committee would shift to Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has a track record of rejecting any revenue increase, railing against merit-based transportation financing, and working to cut environmental reviews for road projects.

The current House Transportation Committee chair, Bill Shuster, has a better track record of consulting with Democrats than his predecessor, John Mica, but with a Republican Senate, even Shuster might be less invested in bipartisanship.

A Congress with both chambers controlled by Republicans could revive old, rejected ideas like devolving transportation funding to states, closing the Highway Trust Fund's transit account, or eliminating bike/ped funding. That is the scenario set up by yesterday's extension vote with its May 31 sunset.

Oh, and if you're impressed that Congress is addressing this issue well before the September 30 expiration of the current MAP-21 bill, don't be. That bill's funding fixesgimmicks in their own rightdidn't manage to last all the way until its sunset, and the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to dip into insolvency by the end of next month. US DOT was preparing to start cutting payments to states by 28 percent on August 1. And Congress has only 10 work days left on the legislative calendar before members retreat to their home districts for the month of August.

A version of this post originally appeared on Streetsblog. Since it ran yesterday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) announced plans to slow the bill unless he can get a vote on two amendments (to devolve funding to states and repeal the Davis-Bacon rules on contractor pay) that do not have bipartisan support.

Tanya Snyder is editor of Streetsblog Capitol Hill, which covers issues of national transportation policy. She previously covered Congress for Pacifica and public radio. She lives car-free in a transit-oriented and bike-friendly neighborhood of Washington, DC. 

Comments

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Watch what they do, not what they say!

by charlie on Jul 17, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

Oh, democrazy inaction.

by Jasper on Jul 17, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

Elections have consequences.

Remember that in November.

by august4 on Jul 17, 2014 3:12 pm • linkreport

I will as I vote for my non-voting delegate.

by David C on Jul 17, 2014 10:08 pm • linkreport

Rotten politicians. They need to get there heads straight about the economy and unanimously vote to keep giving funding for transit projects. I hate Republicans for their 95%-of-the-time CAR ORIENTED, FREEWAY SYSTEM-LIKE IDEALS AND NOW SOME REPUBLICANS WANT TO CUT OFF THE HIGHWAY TRUST FUND'S TRANSIT ACCOUNT?! THAT'S JUST ABSOLUTELY DUMB! ROTTEN! SELFISH! CRUDDY! I CANT BELIEVE THEY'RE DOING THIS! IF YOUR LISTENING TO THIS REPUBLICANS, IF YOU DON'T PUT YOUR VOTE INTO KEEPING FUNDING FOR TRANSIT, YOUR NEVER GETTING MY VOTE FOR ALL ETERNITY!

by YoungTransitSupporter on Aug 26, 2014 3:46 pm • linkreport

Young Transit Supporter: It is YOU that are selfish. In Maryland, Mass transit consumes 48% of out transportation yet only carries 8% of all trips. Instead of complaining about cars, you should get down on your knees and thank God for the motorists and truckers whose forced largess subsidizes your ride. We have to cover all of our costs PLUS pay yours. Every transit system comes with a built-in funding source, it's called a farebox. Put your money where your mouth is.

by Gary on Sep 1, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

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