Sen. James M. Inhofe thought he had a very clever idea for transportation funding 25 years ago. On Wednesday he denounced it and sent a subtle message to anyone in the Senate ranks feeling rebellious after the GOP takeover.
“It didn’t work,” said the Oklahoma Republican who last month became chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
His reference was to something called devolution, the belief that states ought to raise and spend their own transportation funds, rather than funneling federal gas tax dollars through Washington.
Courtly gentleman that Inhofe is, he declined to label what he said at a Senate hearing as a shot across the bow of devolution proponents, but no one in the crowded hearing room thought it was anything less than that.
His remarks in the course of the meeting were more than a message that devolution was dead. After taking over the chairmanship from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Inhofe made clear that he wants a critical, long-term transportation bill on President Obama’s desk before current funding runs out May 31, that he has no stomach for what would be the 33rd short-term funding extension in the past six years, and that the bill being crafted by committee staff would draw heavily on unsuccessful bipartisan legislation drawn up in the last session.
He also made clear that the most conservative members of his party should not take the GOP Senate majority as an indication that transportation would a proving ground for radical thinking. Inhofe, who wrote a book in which he disputes climate-change science, ranks himself among the Senate’s staunch conservatives, but he has worked as closely with Boxer on transportation issues as they have differed on environmental issues.
“You have a proud outspoken liberal and a proud outspoken conservative agreeing on what we need to do,” Inhofe said.
Boxer said the committee and its peer in the House shared an urgency to push through a major transportation bill this spring, but she said the rest of Congress seemed remarkably somnolent on the need.
“I am very worried that I see that same lackadaisical attitude” shown when the bill faltered last year, she said. “We need to take the lead and get things going, because I see another extension coming.”
Timing becomes critical, because funding will expire in May just as the construction season gets underway in cold-weather states. Officials in those states say they need the reassurance of a long-term funding plan as they contemplate projects that would take years to complete.
Boxer compared their plight to a home buyer being offered a six-month mortgage without a promise the bank was going to provide payments beyond that.
“You wouldn’t buy the house,” she said.
Funding is the critical question, with the gas-tax-reliant federal Highway Trust Fund hemorrhaging money in an increasingly fuel-efficient era. Its shortfalls have required the transfer of $62 billion from the general tax fund since 2008.
There is a chicken-and-egg aspect to producing a new long-term bill. On the Senate side, the Environment Committee can craft a spending plan, but it falls to the Finance Committee to fund it.
Without objection from others on the Environment Committee Wednesday, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said there were three viable options for coming up with new revenue: increasing the federal gas tax, offering tax breaks to lure home almost $2 trillion in corporate money now parked offshore, or increasing domestic oil production and devoting the tax revenue to infrastructure.
Aside from how to raise money, there are questions about how much should be spent. The White House plans to send Congress a six-year bill that would spend $478 billion. While House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) hasn’t specified an amount, he recently remarked that he and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx “could find a number we agree on” if ample money were available.
On the Senate side, barring an unforeseen funding windfall, the staff writing the bill seemed intent on maintaining spending at or near current levels.
Whatever the result, shifting the burden to states through devolution isn’t going to go far, the hearing suggested.
“We’d have to increase our [state] gas tax from 22 cents to 58 cents,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
Inhofe said he and former Florida congressman Connie Mack (R) came up with the concept 25 years ago, but there is no need to worry about that looming again.
“We realized that it didn’t work,” Inhofe said, lamenting, “It was more fun to be for it than against it.”