Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Continuing resolution" no solution at all

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Congress can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to reauthorizing the surface transportation program. It's approaching three years since the silly-named SAFETEA-LU expired in September 2009.

The program has been kept alive through eight extensions known as continuing resolutions (CR). A CR enables program spending to continue at the level of the original program, but does not allow for changing circumstances that might call for significant changes in the program at issue.

Despite statements and promises from leading members of the House and Senate that they are serious about reauthorizing what used to be called simply the highway bill, it appears that another CR will be needed by the March 31 expiration of the latest CR. Statements that this time it will be different are really boring when they have been uttered so many times.

The abject failure of Congress to do the people's business is enough to cause otherwise rational people to question why we even have a Congress. The highway and transit programs are not and never have been subject to partisan bickering. Nor is the current imbroglio a partisan struggle. It’s nothing more than the House and Senate effectively saying "mine is bigger than yours."

The Senate passed its version of the bill weeks ago on a bipartisan vote, a $109 billion two-year authorization. The House, after months of bravado and meaningless statements that "this time we mean it," has yet to move any legislation. It has focused on a five-year $265 billion program, but leadership (if that's what it really is) has been unable to come up with the votes to move it along.

When the House effort was marked up a month ago, it eliminated a commitment to fund transit projects out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is fed by highway fuel taxes. To pay for transit programs, the House planned to commit revenue from oil and gas drilling in Alaska on public land. Of course, any drilling that would begin today would not produce any revenue for five years, meaning the act would have expired before it was funded. The draft bill also included provisions that had nothing at all to do with transportation infrastructure. What's a bit of logic to our elected ideologues who are making fools of themselves?

Republicans (House Democrats clearly have no influence on anything of significance in this Congress) now say they will pursue another short-term CR rather than take up the Senate-passed measure. In his umpty-umpth declaration, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R.-Fla.) promised to decide for how long the CR would extend and to bring it to the floor for a final vote.

Not so fast. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) responded that he is inclined not to vote on a short-term extension of transportation funding.

Most members of Congress consider the transportation authorization a jobs program. That's because most are economic illiterates who do not understand the relationship between transportation infrastructure and economic growth. It is doubtful, despite the many statements to the contrary, that they will allow the authority to spend money on highway and transit programs and to collect federal highway fuel taxes to lapse.

Neither the House nor Senate wants to inject the transportation program and the thousands of jobs that accompany it into the presidential election. That suggests that the new CR, when they get around to passing it, will extend to the beginning of 2013. Stay tuned.

Larry Kaufman

Larry Kaufman is a veteran transportation journalist and commentator and a Contributing Editor to Railway Age.