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Congress too busy for highway bill—again?

Sept. 8, 2015
Government shutdown, Iran nukes, Pope fill September calendar

Congress returns from its August break Tuesday, and while those members looking to resume progress toward a multi-year highway bill remain optimistic a plan can be passed, the legislative agenda is more than full of distractions in September.

In an informal and wide-ranging conversation before the Public Policy Institute of California last week, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the state’s senior senator and a Democrat, spoke at some length about the “sleepless nights” and “horrible, crazy stuff” it took to get a six-year authorization through the Republican-controlled Senate. Boxer also said she’s recently had talks with the leaders of the House transportation committee “who seem very ready to go” in developing that chamber’s multi-year plan. (See Boxer's discussion of the bill in the video below, which runs from about the 12-minute mark.)

“My prediction today, and I make it with some trepidation, is that we will have a bill that will at least fund three years,” Boxer said. “It’s a very bright spot in this Congress, but it’s ridiculous—ridiculous—we haven’t solved the long-term problem on how to pay. We haven’t raised the gas tax since Clinton. You could do a penny a month for ten months: You wouldn’t feel it and you would solve your problem.”

But the more pressing problem, other than the bipartisan political resistance to a gas tax increase, is procedural: Congress has a range of matters to deal with before addressing the surface transportation reauthorization. The summer extension of MAP-21 runs through the end of October.

Between now and then, lawmakers have to fund the federal government for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. A variety of policy riders related to trucking—dealing with CSA, trailer length, and truck driver age, to name a fewhave been attached to the budget for the Dept. of Transportation and might or might not be included in a final spending plan.

A likely outcome is a continuing resolution, or an extension of funding at current levels, while negotiations continue. Last year, a continuing resolution led to a last minute omnibus spending agreement in December (and that package included the rollback of the 2013 hours of service restart provision). However, some conservative Republicans, led by presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz , have threatened to block any spending that would continue to fund Planned Parenthood—and such a maneuver could lead to a shutdown of the federal government.

Additionally, in the dozen working days ahead of the budget deadline, Congress will vote on the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran. And Pope Francis will pay a visit.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has yet to publish its hearing calendar for September.

So look for more “horrible, crazy stuff” before the highway bill can be given the attention it deserves.

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