A headline in yesterday's editions incorrectly stated that the House Ways and Means Committee had approved an extension of a "transit" trust fund. The committee extended the highway trust fund.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted yesterday to extend the highway trust fund for five years and use the money collected in that period for only four years of road projects - and deficit-spending approach that left the highway lobby smiling.
"I think this is a progressive step forward," said Francis Dooley of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
"The taxpayers just took a beating," said Rafe Pomerance of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.
If there was a big winner it appears to be the House Public Works Committee, which lost little of its proposed $66 billion, four-year highway and mass-transit legislation during the three-week stopover in Ways and Means.
If there was a loser it appears to be the Carter administration, which fought in several ways to reduce the amount in the bill. Administration pressure did result in a promise from Public Works transportation subcommittee Chairman James J. Howard (D-N.J.) that he would cut $5.6 billion from the four-year proposal when the bill reaches the House floor.
That would bring it down to about $60.4 billion, still $14 billion more than the administration budget. "If it stays this high after conference, there is no question the bill will be vetoed," a Department of Transportation aide said.
Three Senate bills that would provide for the same programs currently total about $51.6 billion. Final Senate action on them is expected shortly.
Ways and Means had to approve the highway trust fund extension because it is a tax measure over which the committee has original jurisdiction. The trust fund is financed largely by a gasoline tax of 4 cents per gallon.
But the gasoline tax would not raise enought money in four years to pay for the public works highway and safety program of about $48 billion. Since nobody wants to raise the gas tax, Public Works proposed extending the trust fund for six years to pay for four years of programs.
The administration, which lost one round after another during the Public Works Committee markup of the bill, enlisted the aid of Reps. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.) and Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.), both members of Ways and Means. They camp up with an amendment that would have limited highway expenditures in any year to the revenues available in the trust fund.
The Conable-Gibbons amendment was never introduced, just talked about. As soon as Howard offered to drop $5.6 billion from the bill, the administration's vigorous support for Conable-Gibbons began to slide.
Transportation Secretary Brock Adams yesterday denied that he had pulled the rug out from under Gibbons. "You never do that," Adams said. "What we're really interested in is control of expenditures."
Gibbons said he did not feel abandoned. However, he said, "You never know where DOT is - except somewhere in the room." He waved in the direction of the substantial DOT contingent in the Ways and Means hearing room.
He also pointed to a letter he received yesterday from budget director James T. McIntyre Jr. McIntyre wrote, "I want to reiterate the administration's support for the Conable-measure which would lower" highway and transit funding.
"Squishy," said Gibbons.
Gibbons and Conable both tried yesterday, nonetheless, to keep spending and revenue in the same ballpark, even though they knew they did not have the votes for their amendment.
"We now have a $6 billion surplus" in the trust fund, Conable said. "We're proposing $10 billion in spending and $3 billion in revenue. Sooner or later we're mortgaging the future."
"Next time," said Gibbons "the proposal will be for a four-year program and a 10-year tax . . ."
Nonetheless, a compromise had already been struck. Rep. James A. Burke (D-Mass.) proposed the five-year trust fund and it passed on a voice vote. Two other restrictive amendments were defeated.
"Once again the power of the pork prevails," complained Steven Periman, a lobbyist for the Highway Action Coalition, another environmental group. "Public Works just has too much power to deal with. They've got dams, highways . . ."