A recent Senate deal marked a win for bipartisanship, but at the cost of responsible governance. After a highway bill was finalized Tuesday afternoon, a vote for cloture was held less than an hour later, despite the legislation being longer than the Affordable Care Act.
For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the transportation bill is high stakes. Getting a long-term funding bill enacted both takes the issue off the 2016 debate stage and shows the public that Republicans can govern.
McConnell worked across the aisle with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to put together a 1,030-page bill. The esoteric negotiations between staff yielded an agreement both parties seemed open to embracing. McConnell then brought the bill to the Senate floor, asking the body to move forward with debate. A coalition of Democrats and 11 Republicans voted against cloture, signaling to leadership that debating a bill that few senators had time to read was not a good way to govern.
McConnell and Boxer believe this vote was a small roadblock and that the long-term solution–as opposed to the short-term solution proposed by the House–still has a chance. To determine whether the bill will become law, these questions are important to consider:
How long will the bill be effective?
The plan authorizes highway and transit programs for six years, but only provides enough funding for three years. The sponsors cite their ability to find consensus on “pay-fors” as sufficient reason to believe the next Congress will be able to finance the last three years of the highway fund.
Over the past six years, Congress has passed 34 reauthorizations of the highway fund. The results of this patchwork have been uncertainty, unnecessary gridlock and inefficient government. The House passed a bill last week that would follow this trend, providing funding only until Dec. 18. Alternatively, if Congress can pass meaningful legislation in the two weeks before summer recess, it would provide the Department of Transportation the financial security necessary to fix our roads.
Where will the money come from?
Each year, the federal government spends about $50 billion on highways. Under the McConnell-Boxer proposal, that spending would be financed by:
- About $105 billion from the federal gas tax and transportation taxes; this share of funding, however, is decreasing with the fall in the cost of fuel and the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles.
- $16.3 billion would be generated with cuts to the Federal Reserve’s fixed dividend rate. For banks with more than $1 billion in combined assets, the dividend would be cut from 6 percent to 1.5 percent.
- $9 billion would come from the sale of 101 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over 10 years.
- $3.5 billion will come from an extension of Transportation Security Administration fees.
- $4 billion is expected to be created by indexing customs fees to inflation.
- $2.3 billion would come from limiting Social Security benefits paid to fugitives with warrants for their arrest, as a result of a proposed change in the 1935 law.
What provisions do Republicans oppose?
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the Banking Committee chairman, opposes the deal because of the restrictions placed on the Federal Reserve. Others, especially in the House, are concerned that the bill authorizes spending for three years without any pay-fors. Tax watchdogs may also argue that indexing customs to inflation is a tax increase, putting pressure on Republicans to reject that funding mechanism.
What provisions do Democrats oppose?
Changes to safety provisions regulating auto, trucking and rail are raising concerns among Democrats, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, according to the New York Times. The only way these concerns can be realized or remedied is if the senators have time to read the bill. Democrats also rightfully are concerned about the precedent that may be set by taking money out of the Social Security fund to be spent elsewhere, especially as Republicans point (accurately) to 2034 as the date the fund will become depleted.
Despite concerns from both sides of the aisle, it appears a bipartisan coalition does exist to pass the bill on its merits. The question is, why did McConnell try to force a vote so quickly if he knew he had a good deal?
For one, he fears that a long, deliberative process will result in irrelevant amendments being attached to the bill. Second, he recognizes that he must give the House adequate time to discuss the bill before authority to take money from the Highway Trust Fund expires Aug. 1.
Senate Democrats, with some bipartisan support from Republicans, have considered attaching a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank to the bill. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have warned the Senate to keep Ex-Im reauthorization off the road bill.
Another senator likely will attempt to tie Iran to the highway bill, even though the country is on another continent. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a presidential candidate, has said publicly he will offer an amendment to the bill that would prohibit any deal with Iran until the country recognizes Israel and frees three American hostages.
Fellow presidential hopeful, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wants to offer an amendment that would halt federal funding for Planned Parenthood, in the wake of a pair of recently released videos that have raised questions about how the organization is compensated for fetal tissue.
What process would produce the best outcome?
The Export-Import Bank has nothing to do with the highway bill. Neither does the Iran deal. Nor does Planned Parenthood. Those debates deserve their own space, deliberation and separate bills.
Sen. McConnell should have provided more time for senators to negotiate; it is important that elected officials can knowledgeably debate and offer relevant amendments. But he is not wrong to push a vote sometime this week—even if it requires working through the weekend—because the House and the president must sign off on something by the end of the month.
House leadership did cast doubt on whether the legislation could pass that chamber. If the Senate passes their version of the bill, it would force the chamber to either take up the Senate’s version or go to a conference committee. In a conference committee, the numerous differences between the two laws would have to be worked out.
Congress plays by weird rules that many Americans do not understand. We should question why senators are offering noteworthy but irrelevant amendments to an important highway bill. We should also question representatives who say they are passing another six-month extension so they have time to “carefully consider” the issue, even though they have said the same thing 34 times in the last six years.
The same people who are crying “foul” on the fast cloture vote are likely to slow down the highway bill much more than necessary or desired by the American people. We deserve both bipartisanship and good governance, not one or the other.