Republicans look for goodies in highway bill

Fiscal conservatives lost again last week as the U.S. House of Representatives passed a multi-year, $325-billion highway funding bill with broad bipartisan support. 

Virginia's delegation to Washington voted overwhelmingly for the transportation bill. So did House members from most states. 

The bill was approved 363 to 64, and must now go to conference to work out differences with the Senate version, which passed 64 to 29.

More than 100 amendments were offered in a weeklong series of votes and sometimes acrimonious debate. House Democrats pushed an amendment to raise the federal gas tax 15 cents per gallon, but the House Rules Committee, controlled by new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), turned back that effort.

Instead, the bill uses a number of alternative funding sources to cover its first three years of spending — which will total at least $50 billion per year.

The House bill would sell some of the oil stockpiled in the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve and reduce the dividend the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional banks pay to private banks on the stock those banks are required to hold.

Virginia's House delegation voted 9-2 in favor of the bill, with only Republican Reps. David Brat and Robert Hurt voting against it.

Two members of the delegation added amendments to the final House version.

Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock requested more federal spending on "research, development, and new technologies to better understand traffic patterns and combat road congestion," a major issue in Comstock's wealthy Northern Virginia district.

Another amendment, which Comstock co-authored with Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, seeks to help the Beltway's struggling commuter rail system. In its current form, the House highway bill would shift authority for making federal appointments to the board of the troubled Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority from the General Services Administration to the Transportation Department's Federal Transit Authority.

In a press release, Comstock said her amendment would increase focus "on developing new technologies, understanding and mitigating congestion, and getting Metro’s house in order."

The Washington area's Metro system — one of the nation's busiest subway systems — has been plagued with maintenance and safety issues. In January, 84 people were hospitalized and one passenger died after smoke filled a Yellow Line tunnel between L'Enfant Plaza and Pentagon station stops.

Democratic Reps. Don Beyer of Virginia and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland inserted an amendment giving state and local governments the authority to crack down on what Beyer called "predatory practices" by towing companies.

According to a press release from Beyer's office, Congress in 1994 created a loophole limiting state and local power to regulate towing companies. As Beyer noted: "We need more common-sense, consumer-friendly solutions like this amendment to protect our constituents’ wallets.”

Republican Rep. Rob Wittman voted for the bill but was critical of some of its provisions. In a press release, Wittman said the bill was "by no means a perfect piece of legislation," adding, "This legislation is a significant first step in helping resolve the issues that have long plagued Virginia’s roadways.”

Critics of the highway bill said it mainly authorized an increase in baseline spending while failing to address longterm spending issues.

"That’s not 'reform,' " the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards told AMI Newswire. "Reform is cutting unaffordable federal spending and allowing the states to meet their own transportation needs."

Edwards pointed to research the think tank has done on the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded through federal gas tax receipts. The Trust Fund has been spending more money than it takes in for several years.

"The best alternative is to cut highway trust fund spending to the level of gas tax revenues," Edwards said. "Simple and easy. But Congress never seems to like simple and easy solutions." 

That would mean cutting about $13 billion to match revenues.  

In July, Congress approved a three-month "patch" for the Highway Trust Fund, transferring $8 billion in general funds to the fund. It was the 34th such patch Congress had approved over the last decade.

Embedded within the highway bill is a provision renewing the federal charter for the Export-Import Bank until Sept. 30, 2019. House conservatives had long fought against renewal of the bank's charter, asserting it benefited a handful of large corporations and amounted to corporate welfare.

Ex-Im's charter expired June 30, and the bank has been unable to provide loans or guarantees on any new business since that time.