At times in this whole reauthorization process, it’s been hard to see the way forward. House Republicans refuse to deficit-spend their way out of the funding conundrum, and Democrats haven’t gotten behind a coherent plan to come up with more revenues, though they’re still arguing for a bigger bill. Still, I’ve been reporting on the bill as if it’s bound to happen, one way or another. Secretary Ray LaHood has been unflinching in his optimism that a bill will pass this year. But the more I talk to experts, I realize: this thing probably isn’t going to happen.
Fantasies of a six-year bill seem likely to die at the feet of Senator Max Baucus.
I’m not going to quote any of them by name, because I don’t want to risk getting them in trouble with the Congressional leaders that are pushing for a six-year bill. But the half-dozen or so people I talked to for this story were unanimous in their skepticism that this year will see anything but another short-term extension, despite the fact that everyone agrees that’s the worst option.
One advocacy leader said he’s generally an optimist, and until a few months ago, he believed there was a 50-50 chance of getting a bill passed this year. (That’s right – even at his most optimistic, those were the best odds he could give it.) In the last month or so, he’s gotten far less cheery on the subject. The administration has refused to provide leadership on the issue, he said. Rahm Emanuel was a strong force pushing for reform within the White House and with him gone (pushing for reform now in Chicago, bless his heart), the fire seems to be gone as well. Besides, my source said, the White House is already in re-election mode.
Other advocates aren’t shy about putting the odds at zero. Many say they don’t see how a bill could pass this year, with deadlines getting pushed later and later into the summer. Some sources aren’t convinced the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee even has a bill written. Certainly the staff is working on one, but nobody’s seen it yet. Even some sources inside the administration are wondering what’s up. T&I leaders say they’re waiting to finish the FAA reauthorization before really getting started with the surface transportation bill, and that’s not for nothing – budget cuts in Congress have left the committee short-staffed and they simply don’t have the person-power to shepherd two major initiatives at the same time.
But the time crunch is far from the only problem. The small size of the bill the House is expected to pass could be the kiss of death. “The stakeholders that often drive the process are not going to be as enthusiastic about it if it’s a lower level,” said one expert. Besides, with a smaller bill (not to mention the program changes and consolidations being proposed), they’re going to need to change the funding formulas — a complex process that takes a long time.
The rift between the six-year bill camp and the two-year bill camp is about to get serious, some say. First of all, sixers have a way of changing their tune when it becomes clear they’d be locking in starvation funding levels for that long. And many people think Sen. Max Baucus wasn’t just talking off the cuff when he proposed a two-year alternative. If that’s his position, he has the power to enforce it, both as chair of the Finance Committee and chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee of EPW. House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica has made no secret of the fact that it’s six years or bust in his book. Some think Baucus will go along if Mica and Boxer insist on a six-year bill. But as one expert told me, “It’s rotten fruit – how much of it do you really want to take home?”