House passes highway funding band-aid

Exploring Downtown Los Angeles
Heavy automobile traffic on the Harbor Freeway is viewed at sunset on Jan. 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

The House passed a bill on Tuesday that would keep federal highway and bridge construction funded through May, averting a funding crisis that would have stalled infrastructure projects across the country and cost construction jobs.

"I think [the highway bill] is somewhat gimmicky. I would like something more substantive rather than customs and pensions smoothing, but it is what it is."'

The $11 billion stopgap bill, which is expected to pass the Senate and receive the president's signature, is funded in part by a tweak to the federal pension system -- a workaround that both liberals and conservatives have criticized. The change would allow employers to delay contributions to employee pension plans, temporarily reducing their tax deductions and increasing federal revenue.

That revenue increase would only be temporary, however, as employers will have to contribute more in future years to make up for the deferred payments, canceling out the earlier savings.

"The bill offsets its ten months of spending over a ten-year period, increasing spending in the near-term with no certainty the funds will ever be fully recouped," said Heritage Action, an outside conservative group that opposed the bill. The bill also also extends custom fees for importers and transfers money from a trust fund for leaking underground storage tanks.

Some Democrats also criticized the bill as a short-term fix to a long-term problem. "Sadly, the House has kicked the can down the road and has decided to shirk its responsibility to fix the Highway Trust Fund in this Congress," California Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a statement.

The bill passed the House with all but ten Democratic votes. "We're at a point where we've about hit a brick wall in dollars for highways," Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters. "I don't like the payfors," he added. "I think it's somewhat gimmicky. I would like something more substantive rather than customs and pensions smoothing, but it is what it is."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that lawmakers were considering amendments to the House-passed bill. "So I'm going to try and put all of that together and we'll hopefully get that out of here before the August recess," Reid said.

The federal Highway Trust Fund has been chronically underfunded as revenue from the gas tax has fallen short of its needs. Congress, however, has refused to raise the gas tax for more than twenty years.