The road to reauthorisation

Cezary Podkul looks at the key issues that are likely to affect the outcome of the US’ surface transportation reauthorisation debate in Congress, due to resume on 8 September.

It was perhaps an inauspicious omen when, on 24 April, Representative Jim Oberstar did not make it in time to a press conference in Washington DC on public transit solutions. The Minnesota Democrat, chairman of the powerful US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was stuck in traffic on the way to the event. 

Two months later, fresh after unveiling his $500 billion, six-year Surface Transportation Reauthorisation Act of 2009, Oberstar had to watch his ambitious effort to reform the US transportation system get caught in traffic, too.

Cezary Podkul

President Obama decided to prioritise healthcare reform above all else, placing Congress on a tight deadline to get a bill passed before its traditional August recess. And so, despite a 30 September deadline when the current surface transportation programme will expire, Oberstar's reauthorisation was no longer in the fast lane. The president came out in favour of a smaller, shorter 18-month reauthorisation of the current programme and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in consultation with the administration, quickly drafted a bill to that effect. A fierce debate ensued over which bill would serve the nation better and Congress left for recess without putting either one to a floor vote.

But in less than two weeks – at 2pm on 8 September – Congress will reconvene and the reauthorisation debate will enter its final phase. The stakes couldn’t be higher: US infrastructure is in worse shape than ever before, and investors need clarity as to whether the US government will, effectively, double its infrastructure spending and reorganise the US Department of Transportation (per the Oberstar bill) – or simply follow the current model.

So here’s a checklist of the critical issues that will determine the outcome of the debate in the following weeks:

Healthcare: bills that propose new spending need to be backed up with new sources of revenue. For Oberstar, that means going to the House Ways and Means Committee to get a revenue title for the legislation. Since any healthcare legislation is likely to need a revenue title as well to back up new appropriations for covering the uninsured or creating a potential public health option, Ways and Means is likely to again have its hands full with the healthcare once Congress reconvenes. After all, Congress missed the president’s deadline to have a bill passed before the recess and the issue remains a priority for the administration. But the Senate reauthorisation continues current spending levels, so an ambitious new revenue title is not a necessity. This could give the Senate reauthorisation bill, S. 1498, sponsored by California’s Barbara Boxer, a crucial advantage.

Spending: with a new report recently published by the White House forecasting a $9 trillion buildup in the national debt over the next decade, support is dwindling fast for ambitious federal spending programmes. This is already plainly evident in the healthcare debate, which faces steep opposition from Republicans wary of more government spending and so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats, who are fiscally conservative. Oberstar’s bill, clocking in at $500 billion, could easily fall prey to the same pressures. Supporters are likely to counter that not implementing the measure now will only mean that, 18 months from now, it will only be more expensive. But if the spending worries prevail, the Senate measure may as well.

Compromise: even if the Senate reauthorisation passes a floor vote, it will have to be worked out with a House version of the bill in a conference session. In the House, support for a longer-term, six-year authorisation along the lines proposed by Oberstar is much more widespread. In June, for example, 43 members of the House wrote a letter to President Obama arguing that that an 18 month extension would “leave States without the certainty and reliable funding source that they need to plan, design and construct significant multi-year highway and transit projects,” and sources say Oberstar is determined as ever to push for his six-year re-authorisation. So expect a compromise to be brokered, meaning that some hybrid form of both the House and Senate bills is possible.

Timing: eventually, though, time may force Oberstar’s and Boxer’s hands. The only option they don’t have is not getting anything done since the nation’s transportation networks can’t be left unfunded. We’ve already seen that in the emergency $7 billion appropriation both chambers passed last month to keep the highway trust fund solvent through 30 September. Come 1 October, they need something in place, whether six-years or 18 months in duration, ambitious or not. And this seems to augur in favor of an interim measure like the 18 month reauthorisation – especially since, in the past 30 years, Congress has never completed legislative action on the transportation reauthorisation before its expiration, according to a blueprint of Oberstar’s bill published earlier this summer.

As the Romans would say, tempus fugit (time flies) and the debate will be over before we know it. As it unfolds, we’ll be sure to keep you updated on the latest developments.