Why the highway bill matters

Updated
 
Why the highway bill matters
Why the highway bill matters
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It’s been an unusually busy afternoon for the U.S. Senate. A deal was struck on judicial nominees; the “JOBS Act” is set to advance; and an important highway bill cleared the chamber with ease.

A two-year, $109 billion measure providing federal funding for the nation’s roads, rails bridges and airports for the next two years passed the Senate on a 74 to 22 vote Wednesday with broad bipartisan support. […]

The Senate bill’s supporters – Democrats, Republicans, labor unions and business groups – say the bill will help create or sustain almost 3 million jobs, mostly in the construction industry.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the Senate and a great accomplishment for our country,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said, heralding the fact that one of the chamber’s most liberal members – Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) –and one of its most conservative – James Inhoffe (R-Okla.) – joined together to draft the bill.

Though the bill had broad, bipartisan support, all 22 of the senators who voted against the bill were Republicans.

Ordinarily at this point, easy Senate passage of the highway bill would lead to a lot of sighs of relief. After all, the highway bill is critically important to financing infrastructure projects nationwide, and is usually one of the year’s least-contentious legislative fights. Everyone knows this bill has to pass.

But with the Republican caucuses moving so sharply to the right, this year is … tricky. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made his transportation bill one of his top 2012 priorities, only to see it fail spectacularly. The Speaker instead signaled last week he’d try again with the Senate bill once it passes.

Now that the Senate work is complete, there are two questions: (1) can the House pass the Senate version? and (2) what happens if it doesn’t?

On the first question, this should be an easy lift for the House, but as we’ve seen many times over the last year, what should happen in the lower chamber and what does happen are two very different things. Rank-and-file Republicans effectively believe the nation will be better off if Congress invests less in infrastructure, and the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill doesn’t seem to matter.

As for the second question, if the House rejects the Senate bill, Congress will be forced to pass another short-term measure – the latest in a series of short-term extensions – before existing funding expires on March 31.

That may not sound especially troubling, but as Brad Plumer recently explained, these stopgap bills cause quite a bit of “chaos” outside the Beltway.

Transportation experts have long argued that Congress’s barrage of stopgap and
short-term bills since 2009 have made it harder for states to do any sort of rational planning. “States are required by the federal government to develop long-term transportation plans,” writes Paul Yarossi of HNTB Holdings. “Yet we are potentially looking at much shorter-duration authorization bills.” Even the Senate’s two-year $109 billion bill, which maintains current funding levels, is less ideal than a longer-term bill.

And what if House Republicans decide to reject the Senate bill and a short-term extension? Then we have systemic failures and mass layoffs.

The highway bill, in other words, matters.

Highway Bill, Infrastructure and Capitol Hill

Why the highway bill matters

Updated