No Free Riding

Last week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released its way overdue transportation reauthorization. It’s way overdue because the three month transportation authorization extension expires at the end of October – next week. And while the committee anticipates marking up the bill this week, there is no way that it will be done before Halloween so expect another short-term extension to come down the pike.

The reason a speedy resolution will not occur is not because the House bill is dramatically different than the bill that passed the Senate in the summer. It’s this one big sticking point: the amount of money the House bill wants to spend over the next three years is more than the gas tax is expected to take in. $32 billion more. And they haven’t figured out how to pay for that yet.

But the leaders of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee don’t have to worry about that, because coming up with the extra cash is the Ways and Means Committee’s job. And the leader of that committee – Rep. Paul Ryan – has bigger things on his plate, like deciding whether to run for speaker of the House.

Another interesting aspect of both bills is that they authorize spending for six years. But they are only coming up with the extra cash for three years. It will be up to a future Congress to find the additional money to fulfill the spending dreams of this Congress.

The Senate bill costs several billion dollars more than the House bill. And there are other differences as well, including different new major project programs (highway and freight), a revenue aligned budget authority provision (the House bill re-calibrates future spending levels up or down based on previous years gas tax revenues), and transit level funding, among others.

The difficulties Congress has had in figuring out how to pass and fund a transportation bill are a window in the overall paralysis of Congress. There is wide, across the political spectrum agreement that the country needs to make investments in infrastructure. But no matter how hard they try, members of Congress can’t seem to find a way to pay for those investments. And so, once again, we’ll see at least one more short-term extension.

One thing that may be a harbinger of success is by the time a final package is hammered out, Speaker John Boehner will be citizen Boehner. He called the Senate bill “a piece of [excrement].”