Something Wicked This Way Comes: House Leadership's Three-Ring Transportation Circus

Speaking with someone outside of the bubble of national policymaking yesterday, I remembered the surreal and alarming spectacle of the past two weeks in the House of Representatives.

At the beginning of last week those of us who work on transportation were sifting through hundreds of pages of proposed new law drafted by Republican Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica and his staff with little or no consultation with the other side of the aisle. It is, as I said at the time, a march of horribles, including but not limited to:

  • A long section slashing public oversight and environmental reviews of projects, undermining a 40-year-old law enacted with bipartisan support;
  • Elimination of dedicated bicycle and pedestrian funding programs enacted over the past 20 years, including Safe Routes to School (and who could be against that?);
  • Ramming a truck-sized loophole through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), a 20-year-old program that delivers air quality improvements via investments in such projects as bus rapid transit and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, making it just another highway program; and
  • Slashing funding for intercity rail.

But before this extreme, partisan scheme could be taken up, on Wednesday the Natural Resources Committee had to pass three drilling bills, which would for the first time in history be stapled to the package. This was a linkage touted by House Republican Leadership for months, with the claim that this would solve the problem of chronic revenue shortfalls faced by the trust fund which finances highways, transit and other transportation projects.

As I wrote when this was floated, it sounded like snake oil or Washington politics-as-usual. For the first time ever, the transportation program's future would hinge on a speculative source of revenue with a substantial lag-time before any revenue actually came in. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) confirmed that this is a fiscally reckless idea, as Taxpayers for Common Sense noted. In fact, one of the alleged revenue-generating bills was scored at virtually ZERO by CBO,as my colleague Bobby McEnaney noted. Nonetheless, last Wednesday all three bills were reported out of committee.

And in the second ring, we find the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where debate got off to a bang last Thursday with the Chairman (Rep. Mica of FL) claiming to have a bipartisan bill (hard to tell if he was being deliberately or clumsily Orwellian) while the Ranking Member (Rep. Rahall of WV) protested about not being consulted about the bill and expressed shock about the partisan, extreme content. This was just the opening salvo in a 16-hour-long tense debate about the bill with party-line rejections of amendment-after-amendment that might have improved the final product. In the wee hours of Friday morning the bill was reported out with no Democratic support and with one Republican defector (Rep. Petri of Wisconsin).

Okay, the first two acts completed with ample partisan fireworks, we move to the last ring: The Ways and Means Committee, which is tasked with writing the finance section that determines how this is paid for (with the realization by now that the foolish linkage with drilling royalties provided a drop in the revenue bucket). How would the program be paid for? Why by taking the thirty-year-old account that funds public transportation,and the twenty-year-old CMAQ program, and kicking them out of the trust fund to fend for themselves against a host of programs supported by the general fund. This move was so extreme (anti-city, anti-suburb, anti-environment) that hundreds of groups howled in protest, including AASHTO (which represents state highway agencies) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. To no avail.

Ah, but as one analyst noted this would add about $40 billion to the nation's deficit. How to conceal that (if a shell game is coming to mind here, you're on the right track). The Chairman of Ways and Means, Rep. Camp of Michigan, said vaguely that he was sure they could figure it out on the floor. The proposed gimmick? Take savings from raiding federal pensions! Now with the payroll tax deal that may not be available as an option anymore, so they may have to move the shells around again.

Opposition has been mounting, but Leadership seems to think the crazy show must go on. This week the troubled bill hit two more barriers, one from the President's veto pen (see pdf here for the litany of concerns drawing a veto threat) and the nonpartisan CBO providing another jaw-dropping assessment of the bill (it would blow a $78-billion-dollar hole in the transportation program by 2022). What did House Leadership do to compensate for the firestorm of opposition and the consequent terrible vote counts for the whole shebang? They divided it into three bills (reminiscent of the Titanic, which split into three pieces before it sank). My colleague David Goldston, a House staff veteran, does a brilliant job describing this legislative trickery.

Unfortunately, the first package -- drilling offshore, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in the west -- passed in the House last night, on a largely party-line vote (although 21 Democrats voted for and 21 Republicans voted against). And it was larded up with one more energy provision unrelated to transportation -- mandatory approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Thankfully, while this crazy circus deserves more media attention (we are, after all, talking about the fate of many billions of our taxpayer dollars), it has received loud jeers from across the political spectrum. For example, Heritage Action has written and alerted conservative activists about it repeatedly, as has the Center for American Progress. Both the Club for Growth and the League of Conservation Voters are threatening to score the vote as part of their influential Congressional report cards.

That's quite a feat -- turning a normally bipartisan transportation lawmaking arena into a bitterly divisive, political one. It's high time House Leadership folded the H.R. 7 tent and started anew. It's time to kill this House transportation bill.