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House Passes Long-Term Transportation Bill

A last-minute amendment offers an influx of cash to the money-needy bill.

In Paul Ry­an’s first ma­jor act as speak­er, the House Thursday passed a six-year, $325 bil­lion trans­port­a­tion bill, set­ting up a po­ten­tial res­pite from years of un­cer­tainty in the trans­port­a­tion sec­tor thanks to short-term patches.

But first, there’s the not-so small mat­ter of a con­fer­ence with the Sen­ate and the etern­al ques­tion of fund­ing that has loomed over the trans­port­a­tion de­bate.

To cov­er the six years of the bill, mem­bers needed to come up with about $16 bil­lion a year to help sup­ple­ment the dwind­ling High­way Trust Fund. The House bill, titled the Sur­face Trans­port­a­tion Reau­thor­iz­a­tion and Re­form Act, came pack­aged with a patch­work of Sen­ate-passed pay-fors that would only cov­er about three years of the bill, in­clud­ing sales of oil from the na­tion’s emer­gency pet­ro­leum re­serves.

But of­fer­ing a life­line, the House on Thursday passed an amend­ment from Re­pub­lic­an Randy Neuge­bauer of Texas that could send an ex­tra $40 bil­lion to the High­way Trust Fund by li­quid­at­ing the Fed­er­al Re­serve’s cap­it­al-sur­plus ac­count. The amend­ment—which passed by a 354-to-72 mar­gin—also scrapped some con­tro­ver­sial off­sets, in­clud­ing cuts to the Fed’s di­vidend rates and fees on mort­gage-backed se­cur­it­ies.

That in­flux of cash could solve Con­gress’s head­ache of find­ing a way to pay for roads while avoid­ing a tricky de­bate over rais­ing the 18.4-cent-per-gal­lon fed­er­al gas tax, even if some mem­bers were clam­or­ing for the chance to do so on this bill.

In the end, the trans­port­a­tion bill passed in an over­whelm­ing 363-to-64 vote.

“The STRR Act provides strong re­forms and policies to help us im­prove Amer­ica’s trans­port­a­tion sys­tem, and now we can get to work on resolv­ing the dif­fer­ences with the Sen­ate bill and carry a fi­nal meas­ure over the goal line,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, chair­man of the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee. 

The pas­sage is a vic­tory for Ry­an, who be­comes the first speak­er in a dec­ade to move a long-term trans­port­a­tion bill. It also show­cased a re­l­at­ively smooth dis­play of the “reg­u­lar or­der” he prom­ised. Go­ing well in­to the night on Wed­nes­day, the House de­bated more than 100 amend­ments on the bill, and more than 300 in all were in­tro­duced.

In a press brief­ing Thursday, Ry­an boas­ted that more amend­ments had been de­bated in the past few days than in the past few months in the House.

The bill also passed des­pite the in­clu­sion of a reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, which was in­cluded in the Sen­ate-passed bill. Ten amend­ments re­lated to the Ex-Im Bank didn’t get any trac­tion in the de­bate and the bill went through, des­pite some con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion to the re­viv­al of the bank, whose charter ex­pired in Ju­ly.

A sep­ar­ate House bill reau­thor­iz­ing the bank passed last month, but the Sen­ate is un­likely to take it up, mak­ing the trans­port­a­tion bill the most likely vehicle for the bank’s fu­ture to be de­cided.

But it’s not all smooth sail­ing for the trans­port­a­tion bill. The House bill must still be re­con­ciled with a bill passed by the Sen­ate in Ju­ly, and mem­bers are un­der some ser­i­ous time pres­sure to get it done.

A short-term ex­ten­sion passed last month only keeps the trans­port­a­tion pro­gram afloat un­til Novem­ber 20. After that point, the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment has warned that the trust fund will dip be­low its “prudent cash bal­ance level” of $4 bil­lion, for­cing the de­part­ment to start slow­ing its re­im­burse­ments to states. The fund will re­cov­er in Decem­ber, but would seesaw around that line for months be­fore the fund could go in­solv­ent in the spring.

Mem­bers have said that the two bills are not so far apart that a con­fer­ence will be im­possible, but there are still just over two weeks to go. The House is also on re­cess next week, mean­ing that mem­bers would only be in D.C. for a few days be­fore their self-im­posed dead­line.

The fi­nal pas­sage of a con­fer­enced bill would of­fer long-term se­cur­ity to the trans­port­a­tion sec­tor for the first time in years. Be­cause of the fund­ing struggle, Con­gress has not passed a trans­port­a­tion bill longer than two years in that time, which has left states and con­struc­tion com­pan­ies gun-shy of in­vest­ing in large trans­port­a­tion pro­jects.