Nov 4, 201504:53 PMTransportation Matters
with Debby Jackson
Can Paul Ryan help get a long-term transportation deal done?
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There has certainly been a flurry of activity in Washington, D.C. Despite a great deal of controversy, Congress reached a bipartisan deal to avoid a government shutdown and the House of Representatives elected its youngest speaker since 1869 — and the first one from Wisconsin.
Paul Ryan will have the herculean task of presiding over a raucous Republican majority while trying to unify, reform, and govern. It is certainly an exciting time for Wisconsin and I join all of the other well-wishers from the Badger State who hope Speaker Ryan will use his intellect, personality, and energy to forge a new era for Congress and the nation.
Many politicos are saying that getting the fiscal deal done prior to Ryan taking over as speaker will give him a relatively clean slate to start, or at least some room to breathe. The deal suspends the nation’s debt limit through March 2017 and increases federal spending for domestic and defense programs by more than $80 billion over the next two years.
Former House Speaker John Boehner explained it like this: “I didn’t want him to walk into a dirty barn of you know what. I’ve done my best to try to clean it up.”
When it comes to reaching a deal on surface transportation, however, there is still some stuff on the barn floor. Congress recently passed and the president signed a three-week extension of the program. It will run through Nov. 20. Three weeks is not a lot of breathing room.
Consensus on real solutions for many big-ticket issues has been elusive in Washington, D.C. and transportation is no exception. Up until about a decade ago, Congress had a history of coming together on six-year authorizations that were funded entirely out of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Failing to adjust the main revenue source for the HTF — the federal gas tax — since 1993, however, meant that beginning around 2007 the balance in the fund could no longer support those planned expenditures.
Generally, the user-based revenue is about $10 billion a year short of the roughly $50 billion a year Congress continues to spend on highways and transit. So, at the federal level, we have had an eight-year run of general fund infusions and short-term extensions. With each general fund infusion, under current budget rules, Congress must find what they call “pay-fors” — a combination of non-transportation spending cuts and revenue increases.
These “pay-fors” tend to be a bit sketchy at best.