Washington Insider
Congress tackles the mother of all funding bills

By Melissa Theriault-Rohan
OOIDA government affairs associate


June is going to be a big month for Congress with lawmakers coming back from Memorial Day break ready to tackle big issues. It will also more than likely mark the start of debate on the next Highway Trust Fund authorization bill on the House floor because the current funding legislation, SAFETEA-LU, expires in September.

The air is thick with anticipation on Capitol Hill; everyone is eager to see what the new authorization bill will look like.

This takes me back to several years ago when I was working as staff for Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure when the members were working on SAFETEA-LU.  Of course, many factors are different this time.

While I am sure that by and large there will be some similarities to SAFETEA-LU, this will certainly be a vastly different experience for anyone, including me, who will work on the next bill.

We have a new chairman, a new president and a new Congress. During the creation of SAFETEA-LU, Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House. Now Democrats hold all the critical positions that set priorities.

So far we’ve seen a focus on transparency of earmarks. This could be a good thing for stewardship of Highway Trust Fund money and holding lawmakers accountable.

The Democrats are also placing an importance on roles. This administration is not taking advantage of a courtesy given to the White House to offer the draft bill. They are leaving the writing of legislation to Congress. U.S. DOT has said they will be providing policy principles.

During the past five years there has been an increased need for resources. Five years ago there was a need to increase revenue from the various resources because funding levels at that time were barely going to cover maintenance of the National Highway System.

Now, after bankrupting the fund and taking money from the general fund, there is an even greater need to increase revenue, prioritize spending, and demand good stewardship of taxpayers’ money. This is important for truckers because more than a third of the Highway Trust Fund is paid by truckers – diesel taxes, Heavy Vehicle Use Taxes, tire and equipment excise taxes, etc.

To move a bill of this magnitude takes an enormous amount of political strategy. While transportation issues generally cross party lines easily, there are some contentious funding, taxing, safety and environmental issues that have deep roots in each party and, in some cases, states. A mix of concessions and use of political pressures will be necessary to get this passed.

Chairman James Oberstar is committed to passing an authorization bill before SAFETEA LU expires in September. Passage of SAFETEA-LU took nearly a year of extensions of TEA 21 before a bill was sent to the president for a signature into law. I’ve heard from a reliable source that Chairman Oberstar is scheduled for floor time in June, which reflects his commitment to finish this bill before it expires.

Another big change: OOIDA will be deeply involved during the process of putting together this bill. Since 2004, the Association has made huge strides in stepping up its presence inside the Beltway. Our ability to influence issues and positions is much greater than it has been in the past. OOIDA’s leadership and DC team have worked tirelessly to establish a presence, rapport and credibility with members of Congress.

Guided by the Board’s direction and member support though grassroots efforts, OOIDA will leave its mark on the upcoming authorization bill. LL