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Capitol Watch: Senate DRIVES forward but House response lackluster

By Anna Denecke, Associate,
Blakey & Agnew, LLC

For a brief moment this summer, it seemed like Congress was set to buck expectations and pass a long-term surface transportation bill. On June 24, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously reported their six-year highway bill out of committee. Just a few weeks later, the Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported their safety and multimodal transportation bill, another necessary part of any comprehensive surface transportation proposal.

Shortly thereafter, the EPW and Commerce titles, along with transit provisions and a Finance Committee funding package, were combined and shepherded to the Senate floor. On July 30, after more than a week of deliberations, the Senate voted 65-34 to pass the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act.

The rapid-fire action by the Senate is a huge step towards finally passing a long-term surface transportation bill. Furthermore, the DRIVE Act is not the recycled policy and static spending caps of the past. Instead, the bill includes streamlining provisions and increased funding levels aimed at modernizing our surface transportation programs.

Freight interests, in particular, have much to celebrate in the DRIVE Act. The bill includes new freight-focused competitive grant programs, the Assistance for Major Projects and the Assistance for Freight Projects programs. These strategic investment campaigns can stand up projects that are large-in-scale, cross multiple jurisdictions, and oftentimes have difficulty securing funds through traditional methods. The bill also creates a freight formula program, to ensure states have resources to support commerce in their regions, and requires the U.S. Department of Transportation incorporate all modes into transportation policy and planning – not just highways, as MAP-21 did.

For all of its improvements, in the eyes of many members of the House, the DRIVE Act had a major flaw: the funding package to support the bill is cobbled-together and incomplete. The Senate legislation provides $350 billion in contract authority, according to the latest available data from the Congressional Budget Office. However, in a break with tradition, the six year bill only contains three years of funding – the Senate’s answer to the

difficult problem of declining Highway Trust Fund revenue and a hesitancy to raise fuel taxes.

While some revenues can be expected from existing federal gas and diesel taxes, the rest must be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund from other sources, such as the General Fund. Transfers from the General Fund require offsets elsewhere in the budget, and the Senate Finance Committee could only settle on three years’ worth of offsets, leaving the problem of how to pay for the second half of the bill up to a future Congress.

For awhile, many hoped the House might also act quickly on a long-term bill, either by passing the DRIVE Act in full, or by making changes and sending legislation to conference. But by late July, it was obvious the lower chamber had other plans. POLITICO reported on July 29 that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), referring primarily to the funding package, described the Senate’s DRIVE Act as a "piece of sh--." Sure enough, the House adjourned for a five-week August recess, as scheduled, the same afternoon the Senate passed the bill.

The cold water thrown by the House onto the DRIVE Act means the future of the Senate bill is uncertain. When it became apparent the legislation had legs, the House, which had already passed a year-end MAP-21 extension, plotted a new course. On July 28, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced a different short-term extension, this one prolonging the current surface transportation bill until October 29.

The House now has until the end of October to come up with an answer to the DRIVE Act, and possibly settle on a revenue source for a long-term bill, or risk taking the blame for Congressional inaction on surface transportation.

Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and communications consulting firm based in Washington, DC.