Congress hits snooze button on transportation bill

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Wednesday was supposed to be the day by which the transportation logjam was broken on Capitol Hill. The nation’s existing law was set to expire at midnight, and hundreds of groups nationwide had once hoped that Washington would pass a six-year bill worth hundreds of billions of dollars to replace it.

But it was not to be. Not yet, anyway. The House and Senate couldn’t even agree on an extension of current law that would last three months. So late Wednesday night, after months of wrangling over what to do, and for how long, the Senate and House ultimately had to rely on a continuing resolution that extends all government spending, including transportation funding, for only one month.

So this battle will be fought again at by the end of October. And perhaps again and again, if history is any guide. This kind of drawn out bleeding wouldn’t be new to Congress or to the massive transportation lobby. In order to get the last transportation bill passed in 2005, Washington endured a dozen such extensions over a 22 month period. One former Senate staffer even wrote a book about the experience, which featured nearly every kind of legislative wrestling match imaginable.

Similar brawls seem to be in the offing this time around. It’s hard to believe a long-term solution will be worked out any time soon. Transportation experts for the most part don’t see momentum for a new bill in 2009. And House Republicans such as minority whip Eric Cantor were loathe to accept a three-month extension for fear that it would mean raising the gas tax sometime soon. Cantor’s objections were overruled in a 335-85 House vote, but he provided a glimpse at the fight that might erupt over raising new taxes, despite the support of the business community for such a measure.

“We are badly off course,” said former Transportation Secretary and current lobbyist James Burnley, writing in a blog just hours before the midnight deadline. “I fear that we now face several years of short term extensions.”

The situation puts both lawmakers and the transportation lobby in an uncomfortable position. From a political point of view, creating mini-crises every few weeks or months raises the issue on the public radar and engages Congress. But every minute staff spends on tactics involving the extensions “is time they should have spent working on the bill,” argues a Senate staffer. Those short-term extensions also tend to be bad for groups that spend the federal money in states as well as the contractors who work on various projects. Without long-term assurance of Washington’s support, larger transportation projects are harder to fund.

But right now some of those groups, like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are cautiously pushing for any new extension to be just a few months; although they don’t subscribe to a specific number. That would keep the pressure on, in their view, to pass a complete bill that’s fully funded and extends over six years. They have until Halloween to state their case.

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