By Dustin Siggins — Today, the House and Senate are set to vote on the conference version of the transportation bill. With a transportation cost of $120 billion, and a total cost of $271, it’s far lower in spending than what liberals want for a bill that funds until the end of Fiscal Year 2014, and far more than what House conservatives would like to spend. More than the typical difficulties of navigating an expensive bill through a divided Congress, however, are the hurdles the transportation bill faces.
First, funding for all transportation-related federal funding ends on Saturday. With Congress headed for its Independence Day recess/”district work period” at the end of this week, this puts a great deal of pressure on Members who typically want to get out of Washington as quickly as possible to pass a bill quickly. However, the legislation is also being “scored” by the influential conservative groups Club for Growth & Heritage Action – and with both groups opposed to it, this has put a great deal of pressure on concerned conservatives in the House that the bill may not be worth voting for.
If this bill was to fail in the House, or never get enough support for House leadership to bring it to the floor, one course of action open to leadership would be a vote by unanimous consent (UC) on Saturday, once Members go back to their respective districts and a “pro forma” session can be held. Though unlikely for the political pressure it would bring – the UC vote one in December 2011 over the payroll tax holiday extension was very unpopular among conservatives, and it is doubtful that all Tea Party Caucus or Republican Study Committee Member would ignore this recent history – it is an option.
Further political difficulties indicate a controversial or unusual passage could be a problem for the House. For example, after taking power in 2011, Republicans declared all legislation would be online for 72 hours. This has been stretched in the past to technically include time on three separate days, and has been done again with the transportation bill. In this case, the House would have to waive this three-day rule in order to get Members out of Washington a day earlier than they otherwise would leave. Should it pass through controversial means, this technicality (implemented simply so Members could go on recess a day early) could very well create public and internal problems for House leadership.
Somewhat oddly, the legislation includes funding for the student loan interest rate subsidy, at a cost of $6 billion for a year’s extension of the subsidy. While this should not be a surprise to any observer of politics – kicking the can down the road for votes is a bipartisan affair, as is delaying the day of reckoning for politically important constituencies – it is surprising that the House allowed the student loan portion of the legislation to survive, as well as the flood insurance, given how House Republicans have generally tried to split non-related bills and amendments apart.
The most interesting and unusual part of the transportation bill is what is not included in it – funding for railroad systems and programs, including Amtrak. Worth approximately $37 billion for the rail section alone out of a bill that is estimated to cost $120 billion for total transportation, this has at least two potential implications: first, did House Republicans force the Senate into not including rail funding? If so, they deserve credit for holding the line. For Democrats, this means the rail portion of the bill would have to be passed separately, and it is difficult to believe the House would pass any significant funding for Amtrak subsidies and other things in the rail portion, at least compared to current funding.
Speaking with an aide from Senator John Rockefeller’s (D-WV) office about the lack of rail inclusion in the legislation, I was told the Senator – a conferee to negotiate the current bill – pushed for rail to stay in the bill. The aide said the House conferees took it out, including Amtrak subsidies, even though it didn’t include much spending. The concern, according to the aide, was more about efficiencies and new spending than the total spending that would have been included. The aide did not have the spending numbers available offhand, and due to my deadline I did not ask for the aide to go back and look for those numbers.
To be fair to the House leadership, most of the legislative difficulties mentioned are based upon some level of speculation. To get an inside look at things, I contacted an aide in Representative Justin Amash’s (R-MI) office this morning. According to the aide, the bill is expected to pass in spite of Amash’s and other conservatives’ opposition. The aide said that a majority of Republicans would likely vote in favor of the bill, partially due to how many Members have been in D.C. too long and aren’t as concerned as they should be regarding matching spending to the shrinking highway trust fund. Additionally, said the aide, since the bill is a compromise with Senate Democrats, many Democrats will be on board, and other Democrats will get on board because of “goodies” in the legislation.
When pressed on what would happen should the bill fail, the aide reiterated the legislation is expected to pass, but if it did not a short-term extension would be scrambled and voted on by UC. The aide informed me that while he could not say whether Congressman Amash would oppose UC if it were to come to that in this particular case, the Congressman is working on legislation to limit when UC could be used for major legislation in the House.
So, yes, unfortunately the House and Senate appear willing to pass a bill that includes too much spending and subsidies for college students, though conservatives can be pleased it does not include Amtrak subsidies. Once again, the bipartisanship monster raises its ugly head, and fiscal discipline and congressional transparency are worse off for it.
Dustin Siggins is a policy and politics blogger who regularly contributes to HotAir.com’s Green Room, Race42012.com, and RightWingNews.com. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book on the national debt with William Beach of The Heritage Foundation.