Congressional inaction forces Transportation to furlough 2,000

Secretary Ray LaHood told employees to report to work unless instructed otherwise. Secretary Ray LaHood told employees to report to work unless instructed otherwise. Harry Hamburg/AP

The Transportation Department will put 2,000 employees on furlough after Congress failed to enact legislation that included a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund.

"As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement on Monday. "This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."

Agencies affected by the furlough include the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration. In his announcement, LaHood told Transportation employees to report to work as usual, unless they are instructed to do otherwise.

The law that authorizes the Highway Trust Fund to reimburse states for highway projects expired at midnight on Sunday. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., last week blocked an interim extension to keep the projects funded while Congress debates a permanent bill. Bunning said the legislation, which also would have continued unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits for the unemployed, would add $10 billion to the federal deficit.

Bunning said he wasn't against the legislation, but wanted to make sure it wasn't contributing to the deficit.

"When 100 senators are for a bill and we can't find $10 billion to pay for it, there's something the matter, seriously the matter with this body," Bunning said on the Senate floor on Friday.

According to Transportation, the furloughs will hit federal inspectors on highway projects on government land. Affected projects include $50 million to replace the 9th Street Bridge in Washington; a $36 million replacement for the George Washington Parkway Humpback Bridge in Washington and Virginia; and $12 million in resurfacing and reconstruction for the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. A complete list of projects is available on Transportation's Web site.

Democratic lawmakers, as well as the unions who represent Transportation workers, denounced Bunning's hold, an objection to a request for unanimous consent to move on the legislation. The Kentucky Republican first raised his objection on Feb. 25.

"Sen. Bunning's actions are not only irresponsible, but they are downright dangerous," said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's transportation trades department. "In this economy, to purposefully put people out of work is cold-hearted. But it's even worse that these workers perform essential functions to expand and build our nation's transportation system and ensure it is safe for all its users." "I find it outrageous that one senator can kill a piece of legislation and cause chaos for our cities and states," said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Lawmakers are considering how to move forward. While the temporary extension for the Highway Trust Fund has lapsed, Senate leaders are currently working on a $150 billion bill to address economic woes, which would include a long-term highway authorization. According to Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democrats in the Senate will move on that bill, but it will likely take until at least the end of the week before the Senate can move on the legislation.

Another option would be for the House to pass the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, a $15 billion jobs package, which includes an authority extension until the end of calendar year 2010. That bill passed the Senate last week with bipartisan support, but the House, where some lawmakers have raised objections to the measure, has not voted on it yet.

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