In keeping student loan rates low, Congress sends hidden message
The House and Senate passed measures to address student loan rates, transportation funding, and flood insurance, showing that when Congress wants to get things done, it can.
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Despite that broad show of bipartisanship, the House was having none of it. House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio couldn’t get the votes for his preferred measure – a five-year bill that would have used revenues from new energy extraction on federal lands to shore up transportation funds. Mr. Boehner was buffeted by, on one side, conservatives who wanted to slash transportation funding and send it back to the states and, on the other side, more moderate, urban Republicans who were aghast at their colleagues' proposal to cut public transportation funding.Skip to next paragraph
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Thus, the House passed a shell bill – a 90-day extension of current levels of transportation funding – to move to conference committee with the Senate. (And the idea of simply bringing the Democratic-led Senate bill to the House floor? Perish the thought!)
In conference, negotiators tossed out the GOP’s most controversial proposition – expedited construction of the Keystone XL pipeline – but gave Republicans slimmed-down environmental review of transportation projects, among other changes. After marathon negotiating sessions that appeared to offer the bill only a 50-50 chance as of last week, the conferees pushed the bill into the end zone so late this week that both chambers had to waive their usual legislative process to pass the entire package.
“I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago,” said Senator Boxer in a statement.
But even meeting half way obscured the larger challenges to transportation funding that Congress could not undertake in an election year. Chiefly: How to pay for America’s transportation needs in the long term?
Transportation experts and two studies commissioned by Congress say raising the gasoline tax and attempting to charge vehicles per mile driven are key components of shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, the main source of federal highway funding. As of now, the trust fund is coming up short as more Americans drive cars with better fuel efficiency.
While Congress’s two-year bill helps lift some uncertainty for the construction industry, it is paid for by baking in 10 years of new revenues and spending cuts to pay for only two years of highway construction. At the end of the two years, Congress must face the question anew: How do we pay for transportation in the long term?
Congress’s transportation policy is “moving in the right direction and the big issue that still remains ... is there’s no money,” says Pete Rahn, head of construction conglomerate HNTB’s transportation practice and a former state secretary of transportation in both New Mexico and Missouri.
That’s something Boxer said Friday she is well aware of.
“We know the gas tax receipts are going down, and we have to solve the problem” in the long term, she said.
Perhaps the most succinct display of the let’s-work-together versus bitter partisanship split in Washington this summer came from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor Friday morning.
“It’s nice to finally see the Senate start to actually work like the Senate used to,” he said, before throwing out a little political red meat. “It proves if this body ignores the campaign attacks from the president, and if our Democrat friends stop pushing job-killing tax hikes, we can actually get a lot done around here.”