As questions persist about funding for a major infrastructure bill and the congressional schedule remains tight, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) says action on a measure to increase investment in highways and other public-works programs may have to wait until a possible lame-duck session.
President Trump on Feb. 12 unveiled a detailed outline of what he said is a $1.5-trillion, 10-year proposal, of which only $200 billion would be direct federal funding. To help bolster at least the surface-transportation sector, Trump and others have broached the idea of hiking the federal gasoline tax. But tax increases are anathema to many Republicans, though not Shuster.
Speaking at an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, Shuster said he’s committed to working with his panel’s top Democrat, Peter DeFazio (Ore.), to put out an infrastructure proposal and “start the conversation.”
Shuster, who is retiring after this Congress, acknowledged that the legislation may not pass by the August recess. Pre-election battles peaking in September and October will push off consideration of an infrastructure bill further. Thus, he says, getting the measure passed “could be a lame-duck strategy.”
But DeFazio, who addressed the AASHTO gathering shortly before Shuster did, strongly criticized Trump’s plan, saying it has no net new funding. Instead, he said, Trump would offset the $200 billion in federal funding by cutting spending on programs like transit and Amtrak. DeFazio said his own position on a potential bill is, “Show me the money.”
Underlining the difficulties facing the legislation, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was quoted recently as saying the Senate wouldn’t get to an infrastructure bill this year.
At a Feb. 14 White House meeting, Shuster, DeFazio and other key congressional infrastructure lawmakers heard Trump bring up the idea of hiking the 18.4¢-per-gallon federal gasoline tax by 25¢. The levy was last increased in 1993.
For his part, Shuster said he has been talking about a 15¢ boost. He conceded that a gas-tax hike would be difficult to achieve. But he added, “We’ve got to get serious. A conservative principle is, if you use something, you pay for something.”
DeFazio said he would support a gas-tax increase but contended that House Republican leaders are opposed
To get a bill to the finish line, Shuster said Trump needs to campaign for infrastructure investment. “This has to be presidential leadership,
he said. "The president has to be out there on a weekly basis talking about it, going around the country [discussing] how do we pay for this.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who also attended the White House meeting, told the AASHTO audience that Trump returned to the 25¢ concept “again and again and again,” saying he would provide “cover” for those who back the proposal and “take the slings and arrows.”
But after the meeting, other Republicans indicated Trump didn't feel that strongly about the tax increase, said Carper, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. He added that the GOP lawmakers "walked it back."
Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Dept. of Transportation and Development, said in an interview at the AASHTO conference that the congressional speakers provided “a really good dose of reality to speak to the challenges of really funding the needs of this country as well as putting together a bill that’s going to earn votes."
Wilson added, “And we’ve got a little ways to go."