Dems protest use of customs fees in highway bill

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Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee are protesting the use of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) fees to pay for an extension of federal highway spending, which will expire at the end of the month.

The Senate approved a highway bill in July that includes $4 billion from customs fees to help pay for three years' worth of transportation funding. But if the House doesn't also act by Oct. 29 , the extra time lawmakers gave themselves to negotiate ends. 

GOP leaders in the House have scheduled a highway bill markup hearing for Oct. 22, and Democrats on the chamber's Homeland Security are pressing their counterparts on the Transportation Committee to steer clear of using custom fees in their version. 

"As the Ways and Means Committee considers possible offsets for a long-term highway bill, we are writing as members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Homeland Security to express our serious concern with a provision in H.R. 22, the Senate-approved highway bill, as it jeopardizes a significant source of border security funding," the Democratic lawmakers wrote. 

"Specifically, we are concerned about the inclusion of language that would result in the diversion of $400 million a year in potential Customs User Fee funding from staffing and overtime for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers stationed at our nation's air, sea and land ports of entry to unrelated transportation projects," they continued. "The inclusion of this provision is, in our view, a troubling precedent, as it directs the diversion of funding away from critical border security needs to other federal programs." 

Congress is struggling to come up with a way to pay for infrastructure funding before the temporary extension that passed in July expires.

The Republican-led House included about $3 billion of fees redirected from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to the nation's highways in the expiring patch. But Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee said lawmakers in their chamber should look to other areas besides customs fees for a highway funding solution. 

"It is critical that any increases in Customs User Fees, including additional revenue from indexing current fees to inflation, be applied to sorely needed border security needs, including the need for increases to CBP Officer staffing to strengthen America's border security and economy," the lawmakers wrote. 

"We strongly urge you to reject the diversion of Customs User Fees to pay for unrelated projects in the highway bill or, for that matter, any other legislation," they continued. 

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency collects fees from passengers when they import goods into the U.S. 

Lawmakers are considering tapping that pile of money and other areas of the federal budget such as TSA fees.

The traditional source of transportation funding has been revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, though, and has struggled to keep pace with construction costs as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the $16 billion annual gap, but transportation advocates have argued the resulting temporary patches are preventing states from undertaking major construction projects. 

Transportation advocates have pushed Congress to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades to pay for a long-term infrastructure funding extension, but GOP lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump

The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has said it will have to begin cutting back on payments to state and local governments unless Congress reaches an agreement on an infrastructure funding extension. 

The letter protesting the use of customs fees in the highway fix was signed by Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson-LeeDems hijack IRS hearing to ask about Trump’s taxes The Hill's 12:30 Report Why a new 'app' would be essential to public education in the fight against Zika MORE (D-Texas), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Bill Keating (D-Mass.), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.).