The Awful Truth about the Highway Bills

If you ever needed additional proof that the politics of Washington are not just broken, but soaked with gasoline and set ablaze in a ditch near Baltimore, take a look at Congress’s recent highway bill dog and pony show.

The Senate passed the obnoxiously titled Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) bill on March 14 in a 74-22 vote. While ostensibly passed in a bipartisan fashion, it soon became clear most of the Senate Republicans who voted for MAP-21’s passage had no clue what was in the bill and how it would be paid for.

Gary Hoitsma, a transportation analyst who previously served as a senior aide to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), has done yeoman’s work in his analysis of MAP-21’s funding provisions. Despite the bipartisan rhetoric enabled by Sen. Inhofe — who admits he is a fiscal conservative on everything other than infrastructure and national defense — Hoitsma’s analysis shines a much-needed light on some of the jaw-dropping fiscal gimmickry contained in MAP-21.

For instance, rather than attempting to fix the revenue-outlay imbalance that is driving the federal Highway Trust Fund into insolvency, the two-year, $109-billion MAP-21 relies on a series of one-shot revenue transfers that, once used, cannot be relied upon again. This includes a multi-billion dollar general revenue transfer, redirecting revenue from tariffs on imported foreign automobiles, and nearly emptying the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund of its $3.6 billion.

Since this is merely reallocating spending from other federal programs to the Highway Trust Fund, MAP-21 crafters were supposed to find “budget neutral” offsets. Unfortunately, the bill’s backers failed not only in finding the necessary offsets, they used every last-ditch funding trick available to preserve their excessive level of transportation spending. Again, once these tricks are used, they cannot be used again. Assuming MAP-21 becomes the highway law of the land, this means that finding revenue for outlays beyond FY 2013 will be all the more difficult. The Senate’s bill, rather than resolving the very serious fiscal issues facing the Highway Trust Fund, merely kicks the can down the road for 18 months.

The House bill is not much better. While the five-year, $260-billion American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7) doesn’t embody the same sort of budget sophistry as its Senate counterpart, its pay-fors are even shallower. Notice the “Energy” portion of the title; this is because House Republican leadership, in its infinite wisdom, decided to tack on domestic energy production legislation to its highway bill. This “but the kitchen sink” approach is bad enough, but Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) and Company sought to use nonexistent drilling lease revenue to bail out the Highway Trust Fund.

The House Republican obsession with creating a transportation-energy-jobs legislative centipede did not end when H.R. 7 died before reaching a full floor vote. Since then, the ninth extension to 2005’s SAFETEA-LU surface transportation law has been enacted and House Republicans quickly began working on another short-term extension.

Those hoping for a clean extension and thoughtful debate on the serious issues facing federal surface transportation programs will be disappointed. The latest extension bill, which passed the House on April 18 in a 293-127 vote (including 69 Democrats), included a provision [PDF, see Title II] mandating the issuance of a permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is undoubtedly a good thing — many environmentalist critics are cynically lying to the public about its supposed environmental impacts — it has absolutely nothing to do with federal highway policy. There are two reasons House Republicans are adamant about tying Keystone XL to the highway bill: 1) they want President Obama to follow through on his veto threat in order to use the pipeline as a political cudgel before the election; and 2) they want to see the White House flip-flop on Keystone and throw its environmentalist base under the bus.

As much as I like seeing well-funded greens thrown out of the Big Boy debates like yesterday’s recyclables, the future of our transportation system is far too important for petty political brinkmanship.

The House and Senate will be meeting in conference as early as May 7 on May 8. While many observers have been wondering about squaring the Keystone XL pipeline with President Obama’s solar-powered vision, the real head-scratching ought to be focused on trying to figure out why anybody — progressive, conservative, libertarian, communist — would support whatever hellish Frankenstein bill emerges from conference.

The only sensible path forward is for the House and Senate to give up on both MAP-21 and H.R. 7 and start over with a blank slate. Going down the current path will just make our existing problems worse.