UPDATE: The Hill reports that Boehner has decided to delay a vote on the plan. Click here to read more…
–End Update –
WASHINGTON — A series of interest groups rarely mentioned in the same breath have come together to oppose a massive transportation bill making its way through Congress.
Earlier this week, the pro-environment National Resources Defense Council teamed with a coalition of conservatives — including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Reason Foundation — to urge House Republican leaders to scrap a reauthorization of the federal highway bill.
The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7), which could see action as early as Wednesday, would merge a series of GOP domestic energy pet projects into the annual surface transportation legislation. The five-year measure is estimated to cost $260 billion. Meanwhile, the Senate is preparing a smaller two-year version of the bill that would total about $110 billion.
In their letter, the groups urged leading lawmakers to reject using projected revenues generated by new oil drilling in areas like Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to aid the National Highway Trust Fund.
“Further increasing the reliance of the Highway Trust Fund on revenue streams not connected to use would threaten the future health of America’s highways,” they wrote.
The NRDC has on numerous occasions cited environmental health concerns as reasons for lobbying against attempts to open up ANWR. The organization and well as other like-minded groups are also opposed to a Senate GOP-led effort to attach the Keystone XL pipeline to the package.
Republicans who support the bill say they have no problem with using royalty fees on the oil and gas industry to fuel new transportation infrastructure projects.
“This will prevent the need for more of the same taxpayer bailouts for highway programs that occurred when Democrats ran Congress,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
But the groups that are opposed want the authors of the bill to stick to the traditional pay-for-use model, whereby only gas taxes are used to cover the cost of surface transportation projects, rather than tapping into unrelated revenue streams.
A new Congressional Budget Office report out this week suggests that the 18.4 percent gas tax might have to increase in order for the trust fund to stay solvent. House GOP’ers are downplaying that study, arguing that it underestimates the amount of revenue that would be created by new energy expansion.
Another group, the conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that while boosting domestic energy production is “sound policy,” using the potential dollars to refill the Highway Trust Fund does, in fact, amount to a bailout. “Congress should live within its means,” the group wrote, and use the drilling revenues to instead pay down the nation’s deficit.
Boehner’s office, however, pushed back on that claim, saying that the energy provisions in the bill would negate the need for the Treasury Department to direct general dollars to highway projects.
Meanwhile, other conservatives say the reauthorization proposal simply includes too much spending.
“Instead of opening up American land to energy production and using that energy production to pay down the national debt, we will instead jack up highway spending, bankrupt the highway trust fund as a result, and then use the energy taxes to offset the project funding,” wrote conservative commentator Erick Erickson.
One area where conservatives are giving Republicans credit is removing earmarks from the bill. In the past, pork dollars have been used to create tourist attractions, fund gardening projects and even build a National Corvette Museum. GOP leaders say this year’s bill contains only “pro-growth” items, as well as language to consolidate duplicative surface transportation projects.
Not surprisingly, some progressives are unhappy with the decision to to cancel or cut back funding for non-highway needs.
According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the bill would “cripple transit systems around the country and hurt millions of people who depend on public transportation to reach jobs, doctor appointments, schools, and other necessities of everyday life.”
Given such widespread opposition, it appears highly unlikely that the bill in its current form will make its way to President Obama’s desk. Yet, because Congress has not passed a full reauthorization of the highway program since 2007, lawmakers may be willing to creatively deal this time around just so they can put the issue in their rearview mirror.
This article was updated at 12:00 pm on February 15.