Washington Insider
Taking the good with the bad

By Laura C. O'Neill, OOIDA Director of Government Affairs

Someone painted “April Fool” in big black letters on a dead end sign

I had my foot on the gas as I left the road and blew out my mind

Eight miles outta Memphis and I got no spare

Eight miles straight up downtown somewhere

I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

As the clock ticked down to June 30, the deadline that congressional conferees set for the enactment of a highway bill, the song by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition played on a loop in my head. So close … and yet so far.

Here we are going to press and the fate of the highway bill still hangs in the balance.

We’ve been waiting for years for a bill that legislators from both sides promised would bring reform, investment and jobs. Sadly it felt as if “someone painted April Fool on a dead end sign” as the June 30 deadline bore down on us.

When the House passed its version of the bill (essentially an extension of programs with a Keystone Pipeline kicker), there seemed to be a fighting chance for the chambers to iron out differences. Yet, days before the deadline, its future remained uncertain.

Was this all just an exercise in futility? If it failed, I guess we’ll have our answer.

We’ll be asking ourselves: Did the bill, a reauthorization package with no identifiable funding mechanism, ever have a chance in an election year, with a huge tea party freshman class vowing to cut federal spending and return control to the states?

If we do have another failure paired with yet another extension, what does that mean? As usual, it’s a mixed bag.

One positive element of a breakdown is that nine freshmen were appointed to this conference – roughly 10 percent of the freshmen class.

Most of them had no transportation policy experience and also held fast to dogma that “all earmarks are bad” and “federal involvement only leads to burdensome regulation and red tape.” In the world of transportation, a strong federal policy that helps promote a free flowing movement of goods across a federal highway system can actually be a good thing.

In addition, earmarks dictating how the administration should spend authorized money can be an effective tool when those freshman lawmakers have to sell a bill to those other freshmen from states on the brink of destitution.

In short, freshmen will likely emerge from this process wiser – although don’t expect the days of the massive earmarks to return soon. Regardless, if they find themselves back at square one, the next crack at the highway bill shouldn’t involve extensive explanation of transportation basics to new lawmakers.

With enough time, Congress could get serious about a funding mechanism. Although the Senate bill arguably was only a stopgap, after the November election you may see an administration (whether new or old) willing to stand behind identifying new funding mechanisms or possibly raising the fuel tax to help replenish a trust fund rapidly going broke.

Unfortunately, if they instead opted for a lengthy extension of the current highway bill that means the new bill will probably be rewritten next year. And potentially in the House we could see a new chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which means a new set of priorities. These priorities will depend largely on the political landscape as well as the individual who replaces Chairman Mica.

In the Senate, truck “safety” proponent Sen. Frank Lautenberg may get another crack at writing the motor carrier safety title, which may resurrect such abysmal policy attempts as mandatory speed limiters and more draconian electronic logging language.

In the end, we will see what condition the condition of the highway bill is in. But with all the twists and turns this recent attempt has taken, it is certain that the situation will only grow more interesting, begging the question – are robust authorization packages simply a thing of the past?

In the end though, I am sure the jukebox in my head will switch records to reflect “what a long strange trip it’s been…” LL