We Didn’t Build That

How the boring Highway Trust Fund became the newest stage for GOP antics.

Gas prices.
Obama and the Chamber of Congress both want a gas tax hike. Instead Congress punts.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Chamber of Commerce is headquartered in a stately 89-year-old building that faces the White House across LaFayette Square. It’s a perfect location from which to troll a Democratic president. The Chamber readily obliges. For much of the Obama presidency, four banners reading J-O-B-S have been draped across the Chamber’s façade, as if trying to send the world’s least subliminal message, 24 hours a day.

For as long as the banners have been there—longer, actually—the Chamber and the president have actually agreed on something. The federal gas tax (18.4 cents for a gallon of regular, 24.4 cents for a gallon of diesel) has not increased since 1993, which is one reason why Congress keeps passing short-term extensions of the Highway Trust Fund, billions of dollars for ongoing construction projects.

It’s also the reason why Congress scrambled to pass another extension before a September deadline. The scramble worked—by a 367­–55 majority, a highway bill passed the House. But it didn’t include a gas tax. In 2008, candidate Obama chided both Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton for floating the idea of a gas tax holiday. His Republican secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood, campaigned for a gas tax hike. Every year of Obama’s presidency, Chamber President Tom Donohue has called for a slight increase in the tax.

“The American business community is saying we don’t see this as a tax,” explained Donohue in 2009. “This is a user fee.” He’s repeated that and repeated that, making national news each time. “Shippers are for it,” he said of the tax hike in May. “Truckers are for it. The construction industry is for it. Labor is for it, and the Chamber is for it. If Congress were serious about ensuring money goes to the most essential projects, many motorists would be for it, too.”

Congress opted instead for an epic punt, based on a gimmick that has nothing to do with gas taxes. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is offering to let companies set aside less money for pensions so that they’ll theoretically report more taxable income, theoretically delaying the highway fund apocalypse until May 2015. As Josh Barro pointed out, the gimmick actually costs money in the long run, but it syncs up with Congress’s 10-year budgeting. On Tuesday, as Republicans marked up the bill, they only tried to defend it by saying that it was bipartisan, and hey—they could make the tough call later.

“This is the only package with a history of big bipartisan votes,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, the Rules Committee’s chairman.

“These policies that have previously received bipartisan and bicameral support,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the Transportation Committee, and the son of former chairman Bud Shuster, as Sessions kept pointing out by referring to his “young” colleague. (Shuster is 53 years old.)

“Bipartisan,” in this Congress, has been a soothing synonym for “kludge.” Democrats and the Chamber simply want a gas tax, as do at least two Senate Republicans who aren’t facing primary challenges this year.

At the markup, the might of this coalition was represented by Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents the city of Portland, dons bow ties, and wears a lapel pin shaped like a bike. He had proposed raising the gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 33.4 cents, but that bill wasn’t getting anywhere, so he was left arguing to move the deadline for new action from May 2015 to sometime this year.

“Think about it!” said Blumenauer. “It’s going to be an evenly, narrowly divided Senate, and half the Senate will be running for president. To think, in the other body, that they’re going to be able in a couple of months to solve the funding problem? This is not going to get easier next year.”

“It may or may not be easier to achieve it now or later,” said Sessions.

The meaning of that gibberish may depend on what “easier” is supposed to mean. Conservative groups have belatedly entered the debate on the funding package. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action have, predictably, warned Republicans to vote no or have it scored against them.

“This bill uses budget gimmicks and fee increases to bail out a wasteful and inefficient program that shouldn’t even exist,” argued the Club for Growth.

“In many ways this resembles the sequester,” offered Heritage Action President Michael Needham, “with the Democrats overplaying their rhetorical hand as 93 percent of total highway and transit spending will continue apace.”

Republican leadership is openly—well, anonymously—mocking the outside groups. As far as House Speaker John Boehner is concerned, these conservative groups lost their clout after the government shutdown. But among conservatives, the end of the shutdown (i.e., the funding of the Affordable Care Act) was proof that the party establishment has no vision or credibility. In 2013, it was Georgia Rep. Tom Graves who first proposed tying the year’s mandatory spending bill to the defunding of Obamacare. In 2014, it’s Graves who’s come up with the conservative antidote to the highway bill.

Graves’s bill is HR 3486, the Transportation Empowerment Act. Yes—it’s called the TEA Act. Backed by the Club for Growth and by Heritage Action, and sponsored by 46 of his peers, Graves’ bill would devolve “most” highway funding responsibilities to the states, ideally enough to cut the gas tax down to 3.4 cents. With Congress flailing and punting, conservatives think they can shift the window of acceptable debate. Come 2015, the mainstream would drift even further from the Chamber/Democratic position.

“Each ‘no’ vote,” wrote Heritage’s Needham, “brings those reforms closer to reality because it signals the inevitable end of the bankrupt status quo.”

That’s the irony of the whole mess—nobody’s campaigning for “the status quo.” The Chamber and the White House are asking for the first gas tax hike since 1993. Their impediment is a Congress that prefers to move money around on spreadsheets than to pass any tax. At Tuesday’s hearing the Democrats, who’ll be counted on to back the House’s kludge, could only scoff at how stupid the process had become.

“This is just a suggestion,” said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democratic member of the Rules Committee, “but if you guys are still in the majority after the election—I pray that you’re not, but in case you are—you may want to revisit this issue of earmarking.”

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who ran the committee during Nancy Pelosi’s speakership, simply ran out of words.

“I remember the days when the most bipartisan bill was transportation,” said Slaughter. “This is not even half a loaf. This is a comma in a page. This is any port in a storm. I’m having a lot of platitudes today.”