Saturday, April 28, 2012

Side Issues Threaten Long Term Highway Trust Fund Legislation

Now on the table before the Joint US Transportation Conference Committee, the Senate’s two year, $109 billion surface transportation measure and the House’s temporary extension through September 30 this year should form the basis for serious discussion about the long term future of federal surface transportation funding in this country. Instead, the web sites of several of the 47 Senators and Congressmen appointed to the committee are already touting how hard these politicians will fight for money for their own states, or pet issues they hope to see incorporated into the final bill.

The conference committee, chaired by California Senator Barbara Boxer, consists of eight Democrat and 6 Republican Senators, plus 20 Republican and 13 Democrat Representatives. The Committee’s first meeting will be May 8. In order to avoid yet another band aid three month Highway Trust Fund extension, the conference committee must report out a bill and get it passed on the floor of both houses of Congress before June 30. While the conference committee is now charged with determining how much money the federal government will spend on roads, bridges, locks, dams, railroad tracks, drinking water and public transit construction over the next two years, early debates are likely to focus on the as yet unresolved issues particular committee members want to attach to this “must pass” legislation in order to get what they want from a gridlocked Congress that otherwise won’t even vote on their pet proposals.

Everybody knows that the Senate’s $109 billion over two years already severely underfunds infrastructure construction and repair in this nation, but the conference committee is unlikely to even consider new revenue raisers which could bring funding levels up near what is actually needed. Instead, its early discussions could center on the three major distractions certain committee members insist on pushing: a mandate for construction of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline; the RESTORE Act to force spending 80% of Clean Water Act penalties from the Deepwater Horizon disaster to Gulf Coast states; and a provision prohibiting USEPA from regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste.

Politicians have a unique knack for distracting what could be productive debate on significant national concerns like our crumbling infrastructure by attempting to festoon legislative measures with unrelated pet proposals which couldn’t even get to the floor of one chamber on their own. The Conference Committee membership includes Republican Congressmen John Mica of Florida and Dave Camp of Michigan, both sponsors of the Keystone XL Pipeline mandate in HR4348, the House measure on the committee’s table. Despite the fact that one portion of the pipeline is already on its way to a federal permit, and that the whole XL project will likely get built anyway, now that Trans Canada has offered an alternate route aound the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sandhills, these two want to call President Obama’s bluff on his threat to veto any bill containing an XL mandate, so Republicans can have campaign talking points in the fall. Why pass up an opportunity to characterize the Oval Office as using a job killing and gas price hiking veto stamp?

Another conference committee member, Alabama Senator Richard C. Shelby, vows to his constituents that the Gulf Coast states won’t be “robbed” of the 80% of Clean Water Act fines from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster he wants allocated to those areas in the RESTORE measure. Shelby is joined on the conference committee by RESTORE sponsors Kay Bailey Hutichson of Texas, Bill Nelson of Florida, and David Vitter of Louisiana. This issue pitting their region against the rest of the country over money could also become a roadblock to long term infrastructure funding.

On the coal ash recycling issue, even the coal states are split. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven is a sponsor of the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, which would promote use of coal ash in paving materials by prohibiting USEPA from regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste. Even West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller contends that adding this measure to a long term surface transportation funding extension is a mistake. “We should focus on finding common ground, not pushing unrelated issues,” Rockefeller said.

One again, as it has happened every time in the last 3 years that Highway Trust Fund reauthorization legislation has come up for debate in Congress, politicians could kill any hope for long term highway funding by fooling about with attempts to attach unrelated pet legislative projects to the measure in conference. We can only hope a majority of the conferees see the folly in this course of action, and report out a long term inrastructure  funding measure which will not only pass both houses, but avoid an Oval Office veto when it does.

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