Highway bill presents first test for new Speaker Ryan

Getty Images

One of Paul RyanPaul RyanLobbying World New York Times editors back Puerto Rico bill GOP senator to Ryan: 'Trump is where the Republicans are’ MORE's first tests as speaker of the House will be passing a long-term transportation funding bill for the first time in a decade. 

Congress has not passed a transportation bill that last longer than two years since 2005, and lawmakers are now facing a Nov. 20 for the expiration of the federal government's current round of infrastructure funding. 

Ryan (R-Wis.) had identified the highway bill as a top priority before he took the House gavel, but the rubber is meeting the road now that he is official the lower chamber's leader. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Ryan did not mention the highway bill in his acceptance speech on Thursday or in his appearances on all five major Sunday political talk shows on Sunday, but he has called for a return to "regular order" in Congress were big bills like the highway measure originate in committees of jurisdiction.  

"The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation," Ryan said in his Thursday speech. "If you know the issue, you should write the bill. Open up the process. Let people participate. And they might change their tune. A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith. Instead of trying to stop the majority, they might try to become the majority." 

The problem is the highway bill falls under the jurisdiction of multiple panel, including the House Ways and Means Committee Ryan vacated to assumed the speakership. 

Lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have approved a bill to spend up to $325 billion over the next years on infrastructure projects, but the measure only includes guaranteed funding for the first three years. Lawmakers on the infrastructure committee have said they waiting on Ryan's former Ways and Means panel to come up with a way to pay for the rest of the transportation spending, a process which was held up by the unexpected speaker election. 

The House Rules Committee is scheduled to take up the measure, titled the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, on Monday and Tuesday, clearing the way for potential floor vote as early as Wednesday or Thursday. The measure calls for spending $261 billion on highways, $55 billion on transit and approximately $9 billion on safety programs — but only if Congress can come up with a way to pay for the final three years.

Some Democrats have suggested raising the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for federal transportation projects. 

"The bill under consideration calls for a six-year period of spending authority, and hopes to be funded for three years with a combination of budget gimmicks and tax code smoke and mirrors over the next decade. But Congress will be back to square one when that money runs out, facing an even bigger hole in the Highway Trust Fund — and once again throwing hundreds of thousands of jobs into uncertainty," said Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerOvernight Finance: Path clears for Puerto Rico bill | GOP senator casts doubt on IRS impeachment | Senate approves .1B for Zika House votes to let VA doctors recommend medical marijuana Pot advocates storm Capitol Hill MORE (D-Ore.), who introducing an amendment to the highway bill to to increase the gas tax by 15 cents

Ryan has said he is opposed to the idea of increasing the gas tax, preferring instead to try to tap corporate revenue that is housed overseas to pay for roads through a process that is known as repatriation. 

"I want to make very clear: I’m against raising the gas tax," Ryan said in a June hearing about the transportation funding shortfall. 

"There’s not much happening in this economy to help it grow, but lower gas prices is one of them," he continued then. "Working families have been struggling for years to get by. They’ve looked high and low for good-paying jobs. Their paychecks haven’t grown much at all. And now they’re finally catching a break. It would be downright unfair to take that away from them. So we are not raising gas taxes — plain and simple."

The highway bill that is under consideration in the House only includes three years' worth of guaranteed funding, which would be paid for mostly with revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The tax has traditionally been used to pay for federal highway bills since the 1930's, but it has not been increased since 1993 and it has struggled to keep pace with rising construction costs. 

The gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year at its current rate, but federal government typically spends about $50 billion annually on transportation projects. Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap in recent years, but they have been forced to settle for a series of temporary highway funding patches that advocates say make it harder for states to plan large construction projects. 

Transportation advocates have long pushed for a gas tax increase to close the approximately $16 billion annual shortfall in infrastructure funding that has developed as cars have grown more fuel efficient. Lawmakers like Ryan have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump, however, leaving the federal government's Highway Trust Fund running on fumes for years. 

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion - in addition to the gas tax revenue - to pay for a full six-year transportation funding measure, which is the historic length of typical highway bills.