Three times this week, the same catchphrases have echoed through the chambers of Congress:
●The United States once had the greatest roads in the world. Now it has potholes.
●Our Chinese rivals are investing much more in infrastructure.
●Good roads beget good jobs.
●It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road.
They are the fodder for every round of hand-wringing that arises when the House and Senate confront another crisis in the search for money for roads, bridges and transit. That odyssey has taken Congress through 33 short-term extensions, and many of those brief patches have required what seems like voodoo magic to come up with the cash.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) knitted his brow with several deep furrows Thursday and vowed to put an end to the woes.
“As chairman of this committee, I intend to solve this problem,” Hatch said at the end of a two-hour hearing, “even as it seems insoluble.”
The issue is simple: The federal gas tax no longer brings in enough money to pay highway and transit bills. A Congress constricted by the desire not to raise taxes hasn’t found the way to do much else other than talk about it.
Senate Democrats invoked the full litany of familiar phrases at a Tuesday news conference intended to put pressure on Republicans, who control both houses. They were heard from both sides of the aisle at a House hearing Wednesday and arose again at Thursday’s Senate hearing.
“We need more than just talk on this,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
Simple enough, said Ray LaHood, former transportation secretary in the Obama administration and a longtime Republican congressman before that. “We need a big pot of money,” LaHood nearly bellowed from the witness table. “We need to raise the gas tax. None of you can think of something that hasn’t been raised in 20 years. Stamps have gone up, eggs have gone up, milk has gone up.”
The federal gas tax has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. A 10-cent per gallon increase would revitalize the Highway Trust Fund for another decade, Joseph Kile of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office told the committee.
LaHood has been outspoken about raising that tax since leaving the administration in 2013. He now co-chairs the advocacy group Building America’s Future Educational Fund.
A hike in the gas tax also could provide cash more quickly than any option other than continued borrowing from the general tax fund, but there’s strong opposition to it in the House. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, ruled it out Wednesday.
“I don’t think a massive increase in the gas tax could be enacted into law,” Hatch said Thursday. “The House says they’re not going to take it.”
With the prospect last year that they might gain control of both houses, Republicans thwarted attempts in the fall to pass a long-term transportation bill, setting a May 31 deadline to approve one. When that date neared, a two-month extension was passed. Now, with the new July 31 deadline six weeks away, Ryan acknowledged the likely need to tap the general fund for another $3 billion to reach the end of the fiscal year.
Although Senate staff members are hard at work crafting a long-term bill and although Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that Congress could beat the July deadline, some of the persistent issues that have bedeviled transportation funding for years were evident again Thursday.
There are lawmakers in the House and Senate who don’t think that fuel taxes should pay for anything but roads and bridges. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), whose home state doesn’t have a city of much more than 160,000 people, said he’d like to see transit systems find their money elsewhere.
And a theory commonly known as devolution was thrown into the debate Thursday in testimony from Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, who argued that a gas-tax increase would put an unfair tax burden on the middle class.
Moore said that the federal government should limit its transportation spending to those things that are clearly federal in nature, such as the interstate system, and otherwise allow states to raise their own money and select their own projects, unfettered by federal regulations.
“There is a way we can build infrastructure without sucking more money out of the pockets of taxpayers,” Moore said, prompting a sharp counterpoint from LaHood.
“If devolution had been in existence [in the 1950s] we wouldn’t have an interstate system,” LaHood said.
Hatch said he would consider any viable idea to pay for transportation, but he noted that “it’s not an easy job.”
“A long-term bipartisan solution to this problem will be difficult to find,” Hatch said. “We need to get to the point where we’re no longer facing a highway ‘cliff’ every few months.”