A diverse coalition of business groups and unions wrote to House Republican leadership Tuesday opposing a proposed change to House spending rules that they say could jeopardize transportation funding.
The letter, signed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Laborers International Union, American Trucking Association, the Associated General Contractors of America and 17 other groups, objects to a rule change proposed by the GOP on Dec. 22.
The full House is to vote as soon as the 112th Congress convenes on Jan. 5 on the package of rules proposed by the Republican Conference.
The change would replace existing rules, which state that it is out of order to strike spending for most highway or mass transit programs, according to Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The existing rules forbid “obligation limitations to be below the level for any fiscal year set forth in section 8003 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, as adjusted, for the highway category or the mass transit category, as applicable.” SAFETEA-LU is the authorization bill for federal highway spending, and it has been repeatedly extended since expiring on Sept. 30, 2009. It is set to expire again March 4.
The proposed rule states that a transportation bill is out of order only if it spends money in the Highway Trust Fund for non-transportation purposes or if it “reduces or otherwise limits the accruing balances of the Highway Trust Fund, for any purpose other than for those activities authorized for the highway or mass transit categories.’’
The rule change would “make annual federal highway and transit investments subject to the whims of the appropriations process,” the letter warns. This would destablize the funding stream and push states to scale back their highway spending, the groups say.
“It’s clear that coming into the political environment we are in, with the Tea Party demanding cuts to spending, any notion of guaranteed spending would be something that Republicans would want to look at,” the Chamber’s Janet Kavinoky said. The problem, she said, is that Congress has failed to update SAFETEA-LU.
“The only thing that is propping up construction industry is the notion that there is a stable funding. If you make this change now and open the possibility to reduce the amount of funding, you are inserting uncertainty to the construction industry, and that is bad for near-term economic growth and in the Chamber’s view, it is bad for long-term economic growth,” she added.
GOP leadership defended the rule Tuesday.
“Creating jobs and bringing down our massive federal deficit will require us to set priorities and start living within our means. This proposal simply ensures we won’t be required to spend more on transportation projects than we take in. At the same time, it protects the Highway Trust Fund by ensuring every penny of the gas tax is spent on highway and transit projects, rather than diverted to pay for other items that we simply cannot afford," Brendan Buck, spokesman for the Republican transition team, said in an e-mail.
He noted that previous House rules automatically locked into appropriations bills at the annual spending increases set in multi-year transportation authorization bills, regardless of how much revenue was collected from the gas tax. As a result, the Highway Trust Fund has required three separate bailouts totaling $35 billion, he said.