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House passes 6-year highway bill funded for 3 years

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/5/2015 Bart Jansen
Los Angeles highway and road network © Jeffrey Milstein/Rex Features Los Angeles highway and road network

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved a highway bill Thursday with six years of policy directives but only three years of funding. The bill approved on a 363-64 vote must still be reconciled with a similar Senate version approved earlier.

The sweeping legislation provides state and local governments a federal commitment and sets the rules for planning and building highways, bridges and transit programs during the next six years.

Lawmakers are trying to finish work on the bipartisan legislation by Nov. 20, when the latest short-term extension of highway funding expires.

"This bill is absolutely critical to America and our economy," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Transportation, in particular our surface transportation system, has a direct impact on our day-to-day quality of life. It affects how we get to work, how we get our kids home from school, and how much time we can spend with our families and friends instead of sitting in traffic. Transportation allows our country and our businesses to be competitive."

But relatively flat funding remains contentious. The House bill authorizes $325 billion in spending during that period, but only provides that level of funding for the first three years. The Senate version authorized $342 billion over six years, but again without funding at that level.

Reaction to the legislation was broadly supportive, as a step to improve transportation even if some factions would prefer greater funding.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it a "modest step forward" that could potentially be leveraged into more spending. But Shuster warned that any moves to increase funding could disrupt the delicate balance that allowed broad consensus on the legislation.

Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, commended the effort for stable, long-term funding and sensible reforms in how money is spent.

Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the U.S. fell behind in construction during short-term extensions in recent years for transportation projects. "This long-term highway bill is an important and overdue step forward to ending the counterproductive cycle of stop-gap renewals and to building our future again," he said.

The senators who oversee highway policy, Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. -- said the House action could allow lawmakers to send a bill to President Obama before Thanksgiving.

The Highway Trust Fund provides most of the program’s funding based on a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon set in 1993. The fund hasn’t kept pace with construction demands against inflation and because cars are using less fuel.

Democrats had urged an increase in the gas tax or other user fees, to allow more highway and bridge construction. But the Republican-controlled Rules Committee blocked consideration of those proposals.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., noted that former President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and seven Republican states this year agreed to raise gas taxes.

“I’m deeply disappointed that we are considering what alleges to be a six-year authorization without a real conversation about paying for it," Blumenauer said.

To bolster more construction, the House legislation included Senate provisions including $17 billion from the Federal Reserve System paying banks smaller dividends, a $9 billion sale from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and $5 billion more from the Internal Revenue Service contacting with private entities for tax collection.

Aviation and travel groups are upset about $5.7 billion obtained from indexing Customs fees to inflation and $3.5 billion in fees from the Transportation Security Administration.

In another provision, the 600-page legislation would also revive the Export-Import Bank, which arranges loans for foreign buyers of U.S. products.

The bank’s authorization to offer new loans expired June 30, and critics argued that it should be abolished as “crony capitalism” for providing loans that businesses should obtain elsewhere. But industry heavyweights such as Boeing and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have urged lawmakers to revive the bank to bolster U.S. jobs.

Bruce Josten, the chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, urged support of the legislation because the bank provided $27.5 billion in financing for U.S. exports last year supporting 164,000 jobs at 3,300 companies that are largely small and medium-sized.

“Failure to secure a long-term reauthorization of Ex-Im would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of other governments’ far more aggressive export credit programs,” Josten said in a letter to lawmakers.

The House rejected 10 amendments that sought to put restrictions on the bank’s operations.

Indeed, the debate that began Tuesday was largely by consensus, despite Wednesday’s session lasting until 1 a.m. Thursday. Nearly 80 amendments were either accepted or rejected by voice vote. Only six won roll-call votes.

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