The revived effort in Congress on a new transportation bill has moved a step forward, with House approval of legislation to provide $284 billion for federal road and transit programs through 2009. But the bill, which the House passed March 10 on a lopsided 417-9 vote, faces the threat of a presidential veto over a provision that seeks, in effect, to reopen the bill in 2006 to add more funds.
The legislative focus now moves to the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works Committee plans to vote on its version of the highway part of its bill on March 16, says Will Hart, a spokesman for that panel. Hart says there is "agreement among the Big Four" on the committee--Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla), James Jeffords (I-Vt.), Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.)--to introduce a highway title in line with the House's overall $284-billion number. In the Senate, three different committees have jurisdiction over the respective highway, transit and safety programs. The panels typically approve those individual authorizations and they are stitched together for floor action.
Industry groups hailed the House vote. "This is a major milestone," says Steve Hall, the American Council of Engineering Companies' vice president for government affairs. "The quicker we get to conference, the sooner we can get a final bill done and...to the President's desk."
On the key issue of states' guaranteed minimum return for fuel taxes paid into the Highway Trust Fund, the House-passed measure retains the current ratio of 90.5%. "Donor" states, which pay more into the trust fund than they receive in highway aid, have been seeking as much as a 95% guarantee, but there is consensus that 95% cannot be achieved within a $284-billion measure. The House's legislation does increase the scope of the funding to which the guarantee applies, by adding priority projects, a House Democratic staffer says. Thus, the bill provides 90.5% of a larger base.
Another provision of the House bill has drawn a veto threat from the administration, which wants $284 billion to be the ceiling for the legislation's total cost. That section would prevent states from getting most of their fiscal 2006 highway aid until Aug. 1, 2006, unless a new law is enacted to increase overall funding. In a March 8 statement, the Office of Management and Budget says that if that provision remains in the bill, the President's "senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill."
The White House also objects to what it terms "the proliferation of new categorical programs, set-asides and so-called high-priority projects" in the House-approved measure. Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy with the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense, counts 4,128 "political earmarks" in the bill, and says the legislation "is leading us down the road of fiscal ruin."
As the bill went to the floor, it had 3,315 priority highway projects and 414 for transit. A floor amendment added 361 highway projects to the list.