House bill would extend highway funding through May 2015

July 9, 2014
Measure would postpone further action until next Congress-- reducing chances of broader fix during lame-duck session

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled tomorrow, July 10, to consider legislation (H.R. 5021) that would extend the authorization and financing for surface transportation programs – including funding for highway construction and for operations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration – through May 31, 2015.

Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced the bill on June 8.

With the highway trust fund running short of funds, Camp’s plan steers clear of increases in taxes typically used to fund transportation and instead relies primarily on two sources of funding – an accounting gimmick known as pension smoothing, which would generate $6.4 billion, and a customs user fee, which would account for $3.5 billion. A third source – a transfer of gas-tax-funded monies in the Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST) account – would add another $1 billion.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) has proposed a short-term extension for highway programs and the trust fund through Dec. 31, 2014, that also taps the LUST account, although that plan uses only $750 million.

Wyden’s plan does not include either pension smoothing or customs user fees, but Camp says the three revenue-raisers “have all received strong bipartisan and bicameral support in the past.”

Camp noted that pension smoothing was used in financing the current highway authorization known as MAP-21 and has been included in three proposed Senate unemployment insurance bills this year. Pension smoothing twice got “yes” votes from more than 50 Senate Democrats and was included in emergency unemployment insurance compensation legislation that was sponsored by 155 House Democrats.

The same House bill sponsored by 155 Democrats also includes the customs user fees, and it was also in the three proposed Senate unemployment insurance bills, Camp noted.  Customs user fees also were part of the Ryan-Murray budget deal passed by both the House and Senate.

“This is the only package with a proven history of getting big bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate,” Camp said in introducing H.R. 5021. “And, while it doesn’t provide as much funding as I would like – enough to get through the end of next year – it does give Congress and the tax-writing Committees ample time to consider a more long-term solution to the Highway Trust Fund. A funding package that would get to the end of next year would have required both sides to make much tougher decisions – something that sadly Washington does not appear capable of doing at this time.”

One major difference between Wyden’s plan and Camp’s is the duration of the extension. While Camp proposes funding through May of next year, Wyden’s proposal covers highway programs only through December 2014. Camp sharply criticized that approach.

“Any effort that just goes to the end of this year will only lead to another backroom deal during the lame-duck session where only a very few Members are present or have any say in the matter,” Camp said. “I’ve been in that room enough, and it is time for the Committees and the entire House and Senate to have the full influence they deserve.”

From the perspective of the trucking industry, which generally favors an increase in fuel taxes as the preferred long-term funding fix, a lame-duck session might be exactly what is needed to push through a proposal such as the one floated recently by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bob Corker (R-TN) to increase the federal gasoline and diesel taxes by 12 cents over two years and to index the taxes to inflation thereafter.

This prospect is what Camp objects to most of all. “What troubles me most about a December 31, 2014 date are those using it as a ploy to stick the American people with a massive increase in the gas tax – just about the worst tax increase Congress could hit hardworking Americans with.  So, I am seeking the reasonable middle ground of the end of May 2015.”

The Senate Finance Committee began considering Wyden’s proposal on June 26, but Wyden and committee ranking Republican Orrin Hatch (R-UT) postponed further consideration of the legislation pending talks with Camp, who thanked Wyden and Hatch for input from their staffs over the past week.

“I know these policies are not perfect, but they are viable, have been used by the House and Senate before and should pass both the House and Senate quickly.  With these policies, we can steer clear of another crisis showdown, and we should.”

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