House GOP proposes expanded oil drilling to fund transportation spending

House Republicans on Thursday proposed an expansion of domestic oil production to fund a long-term transportation spending bill, a plan that sets the stage for a showdown with Senate Democrats who don’t want highway funding coupled with drilling for new oil.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he hopes to pass a multi-year surface transportation bill by year’s end that would serve as the centerpiece of a GOP jobs plan. He said expanded drilling could “provide a new revenue stream for infrastructure repair and improvement.”

“Our bill links job creating, energy production and infrastructure together,” Boehner said.

The Republicans had committed in August to finding new funding to augment the rapidly dwindling Highway Trust Fund, the traditional source of surface transportation revenue that relies on the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.

Although details of their plan to raise new revenue through expanded drilling were not released, it was anticipated to take the form of a wellhead tax on new wells.

The House proposal drew immediate reaction from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whose Environment and Public Works Committee approved a surface transportation bill last week.

“The proposal by Republican leadership would mire a very popular surface transportation bill in controversy, and it would directly threaten many thousands of fishing, tourism and recreation-related jobs,” Boxer said. “In addition, I am told by financial experts that this proposal would fall billions short.”

While the Senate has the ability to augment the Highway Trust Fund revenue with money from the general fund, the House is boxed in by a rule it passed in the opening moments of the congressional session. That rule stipulated that transportation spending must be limited to trust fund revenue unless new revenue can be found.

A $12 billion gap exists between the trust fund revenue and the almost $80 billion that the Senate bill proposes to spend over two years, a gap that will have to be closed before the bill can win final Senate approval.

The Senate bill and the plan under discussion in the House aim to maintain transportation spending near or just above current levels, an amount that experts say is below what’s needed to maintain and restore the national infrastructure.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said Thursday that GOP leaders would continue to search for more sources of new revenue. He described the proposal discussed Thursday — but not yet presented in writing — as a “win-win-win for the American people.”

“Americans will win by rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure. Americans will win by putting millions to work. And Americans will win by having lower energy costs,” Mica said.

He said the Republican bill also will streamline the federal approval process for transportation projects and provide more flexibility to state agencies.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on Mica’s committee, said the plan was “short on details but long on expectations.”

“It is hard to take a plan that contains few details seriously, but optimistically it appears the tides have turned and Republicans have come around from their previous attempts to slash the transportation budget by one-third,” Rahall said.

He said that the GOP plan failed to identify the “real, sustainable revenues” needed to fully fund surface transportation and that funding proposals based on energy expansion have “been around for decades.”

“It is Speaker Boehner’s birthday today, but it sounds like Big Oil is going to get all of the gifts,” Rahall said. “It is tragic that Republicans have failed to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats to develop a bipartisan approach to address the unprecedented infrastructure needs our nation is facing.”

Boehner said the GOP plan, like the Senate bill, would be free of earmarks for the first time since the 1980s. There were 10 earmarks in the 1982 transportation bill; the number increased to about 2,000 when the last bill was passed.

Without the incentive of being able to insert pet projects in a bill, members of Congress have not passed a long-term bill since the last one expired two years ago.

Passing short-term extensions has frustrated state transportation officials who rely on long-term federal funding commitments when they begin multi-year projects.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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