Editorial: Congress' futility again on display with highway bill
Congress is showing its usual ineffectiveness, once again unable to develop a long-term strategy for one of the nation's most pressing needs and instead opting for a short-term fix heavy on financial gimmicks.
The case in point this time is the nation's Highway Trust Fund, which will run short of cash for infrastructure repairs and improvements if Congress and the president don't approve a remedy by Aug. 1. The Transportation Department says that by the first week in August the government will begin to stretch out payments to states, initially reducing them by an average of 28 percent. That potentially could interrupt active projects and delay the start of others, meaning several hundred thousand jobs could be affected.
The possible funding reduction represents a major hit for states like West Virginia, which counts on about $425 million a year in federal highway funding to support nearly half of its road improvement and repair budget.
It used to be that Congress would consistently approve six-year laws to pay for work on roads, highways and bridges, giving states a blueprint for what to expect. But that has faded in the politically charged atmosphere in Washington. Congress passed nine short-term extensions between 2009 and 2012 before agreeing to the two-year bill that's about to expire.
There seems to be little disagreement that the nation's infrastructure needs help, as illustrated by a government report in April that 63,000 bridges across the country need significant repair. But money is the sticking point. An obvious piece of a longer-term remedy is raising the federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, sources that are already the foundation for the Highway Trust Fund. Those now stand at 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents per gallon, respectively. The rates have not changed in more than two decades and are bringing in less money now because cars and trucks are more fuel-efficient. But those in Washington are afraid to go that route for political reasons.
Faced with the coming crisis, both the House and Senate are advancing bills that would provide a reprieve through May. To help pay for it, they're playing financial shell games.
Bills in both chambers reply partly on "pension smoothing," which involves allowing companies to pay less into their pension funds over the next several years. Since the money paid into the pension funds is tax-deductible, companies who take advantage of the provision will have to pay more taxes in the short run, although that extra revenue will be lost to the government in later years. The trouble with this strategy is the danger posed to pension funds. The Congressional Budget Office last week said the pension provision "would increase the amount of underfunding" in single-employer, defined benefit pension plans and "would probably cause some plans to be terminated more quickly," according to an Associated Press report.
Another "gimmick," as described by public policy groups across the political spectrum, is using billions of dollars in so-called Customs user fees, even though those revenues won't actually be in the government's hands until 10 years from now.
Lawmakers now say they don't have time to come up with longer-term legislation, meaning that the stability of the Highway Trust Fund will remain in limbo. But really, that's just an excuse for not getting the job done.
Between now and next May, Congress and the president must get serious about addressing this problem. Motorists and companies that rely on good, safe roads deserve much better leadership from the nation's capital.
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