A bipartisan Twitter fest is scheduled to break out on Capitol Hill this week as the Obama administration and Congress venture into an area where they may find agreement: escaping the quagmire over transportation.
With the May 31 expiration of transportation funding nearing, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) plan to join forces to hold a “town meeting” on Twitter (#StuckInTraffic).
“On a very personal level, I like Chairman Shuster,” said Foxx, 43. “I like working with him.”
“The timing is right for me and Secretary Foxx,” said Shuster, 54.
It is an ever-so-21st century venture into social media that their predecessors, former chairman John Mica, 72, (R-Fla.) and former secretary Ray LaHood might not have attempted, though LaHood, 69, was no slouch in that arena.
In an era when Twitter is omnipotent, tweeting a digital meeting harbors far greater significance as a display of rare bipartisan camaraderie in pursuit of a common goal.
“It sends a very important signal about the bipartisan nature of transportation,” Foxx said. “There are no Republican or Democratic potholes. This country needs to see people on both sides of the aisle finding ways to work together, where we can, and creating a bit of a balm for some of the vitriol that has been out there in recent years.”
“This Twitter thing is just a small step,” Shuster said, “but on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol, on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, everybody is talking about we’ve got to do a long-term [transportation] bill and figure out how to fund it.”
The event will take place immediately after Foxx appears before Shuster’s committee Wednesday to discuss the need for a long-term transportation reauthorization. Although past transportation bills have had a variety of durations, the hopeful consensus this time is for passage of a six-year bill that will provide greater certainty to state planners eager to launch long-term construction or repair programs.
The White House plans to send a six-year, $478 billion bill to Congress. Shuster said he will take a respectful look at it, but that the House plans to craft its own measure. If it were left to him and Foxx, he said, they could come to an agreement on how much should be spent.
“I’m certain the secretary and I could find a number that we agreed on,” Shuster said. “It might be a little different than [Rep.] Paul Ryan and [Sen.] Orrin Hatch, it might be a little different than [the Office of Management and Budget], but that’s something we could work through.”
“I think it’s fair to say that there will be differences, but Chairman Shuster is someone I’ve come to have a very high level of confidence in when it comes to making things happen,” Foxx said. “Frankly, whatever disagreements there might be, we will manage it in an agreeable way.”
The multibillion-dollar question that has virtually paralyzed lawmakers in recent years is how to pay for a longer-term bill. The gas-tax reliant Highway Trust Fund has not kept pace with spending for several years. When Congress last year approved a 10-month extension of the two-year transportation bill, it was the 32nd time in the past six years that lawmakers went with a short-term extension instead of passing a long-term funding measure.
Since 2008, lawmakers have transferred $62 billion in general tax revenue to bolster the sagging trust fund. A variety of options are in play — including the suggestion to abolish the trust fund and rely on the general tax fund — and Congress will have to select one or more of them if there is any hope for passage of a six-year bill.
“I don’t want to add money to the deficit,” Shuster said. “What the final solution is, I do not know, but I’m sure we’ll have a final solution and get a long-term bill. Repatriation could pay for it, and it’s not deficit spending.”
Repatriation would send home some of the almost $2 trillion that U.S.-based companies hold offshore, avoiding the 35 percent corporate tax rate. Both Republicans and Democrats have proposed slashing the rate and using the money to fund transportation.
“We have a very specific version of pro-growth business tax reform that would place a one-time tax on untaxed corporate earnings overseas and enable companies to bring those proceeds home and put that money to work for infrastructure,” Foxx said.
Shuster took over the committee chairmanship from Mica in 2013 and has quietly tried to tame the just-say-no wing of his party. His reward last year was bipartisan support when he pushed through a major bill on U.S. ports, waterways, canals and dams that ultimately was signed into law. This year, in addition to passing a long-term surface-transportation bill, Shuster hopes to hold his bipartisan coalition together in approving a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Shuster held his first open forum on Twitter when the waterways bill was under consideration. Mike Marinaccio, the committee’s digital director, said the event drew more than 1 million unique users and 3.5 million viewers.
This time he plans to use direct video posting to Twitter and Zoomph to filter the avalanche of questions he anticipates.
“Nobody has ever done this with a committee chairman and a sitting cabinet member,” Marinaccio said.