Critics say GOP rule change could cripple transportation projects

WASHINGTON–The first few days of the 112th Congress will be mostly pomp and pageantry, with no plans to debate any meaty legislation.

But Rep. Joe Courtney says one GOP proposal on the docket–a little-noticed change to House rules that’s set for a vote on Wednesday–could have more serious implications than many hotly-debated bills.

At issue are a few lines in a 33-page House GOP rules package, which Courtney and other critics say could jeopardize federal transportation funding for critical highway, bridge and transit projects in Connecticut and elsewhere.

The Republican measure would undo a provision, in place since 1998, that shields the Highway Trust Fund from being raided for other funding priorities.

GOP leaders say they have no intention of dipping into that pot–and it’s not exactly flush anyway. The new provision, they argue, simply ensures there are no “sacred cows” when it comes to spending cuts.

Under previous House rules, any bill that undermined approved, multi-year federal highway projects was automatically considered out of order. Congress has traditionally mapped out federal highway and transit spending over a six-year period, so any proposal that sought to alter current or future funding levels set out in those six-year laws was a non-starter.

The new GOP rule would make the spending increases included in those six-year plans fair game to re-allocation.

Courtney says this would be very destabilizing for local and state governments and could wreak havoc with a vital part of the economy–the construction industry. And he’s not the only one raising alarm bells.

An alliance of business and union groups, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Laborers International Union, has mounted an 11th hour campaign opposing the measure.

The old rule, Courtney said, provided much-needed “certainty and stability” for state and local governments, so they could conduct long-term planning for infrastructure projects. The new proposal would undercut that, he said, and expose the Trust Fund to the “passing whims of a budget year.”

“Republicans just want to have complete freedom to reduce spending across the board,” Courtney said. “But no one would say we are overspending in this area of our infrastructure… This is a job-killer.”

He said that because the Highway Trust Fund has its own revenue stream in the federal gas tax, it should be walled off. “The feeling was it should not be used as an ATM machine for other priorities in the budget and that’s what this is going to open the door to,” Courtney argued.

Donald Shubert, a spokesman for Keep CT Moving, a transportation advocacy coalition composed of labor and business groups, said the rule would be particularly problematic for Connecticut, which is more reliant on federal transportation funding than other states.

“Nothing slows down our Department of Transportation like uncertainty in federal funding,” he said. “They need to know how much federal funding they’re going to get over the next three years or four years in order to plan not only the multi-year projects” but short-term initiatives as well.

“If this rule change goes through, there will be no more funding guarantees and it just really makes everybody’s ability to plan here in Connecticut almost impossible,” he said.

But Republican leaders say the rule is a sensible move at a time of spiraling deficits and growing concern about federal spending. The proposal is consistent with the GOP’s pledge to put all non-security spending, even much-cherished transportation projects, on the table for possible cuts.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the House GOP transition team, noted that since 2001, transportation spending levels have exceeded the gas tax revenues flowing into the Highway Trust Fund, and Congress has spent down the balances in that kitty. So lawmakers have raided other funding sources, he said, to bail out the Highway Trust Fund, not vice versa.

The old House rule automatically locked Congress into annual spending increases set out in multi-year transportation authorization bills, “regardless of how much revenue was collected from the gas tax,” Buck said. “This proposal simply ensures we won’t be required to spend more on transportation projects than we take in.”

Indeed, the last Congress ended in a stalemate over this very issue. Although the last transportation authorization law lapsed in 2009, the 111th Congress failed to pass a new six-year bill, in large measure because there was not enough money in the Trust Fund to pay for all the priorities that lawmakers wanted to fund in their home states.

A House subcommittee drafted a $450 billion proposal to fund highway, transit and other transportation initiatives, but it never gained traction. And the Senate made even less progress.

Instead, lawmakers passed several short-term extensions to keep existing projects funded at current levels.

Those stop-gap funding bills have created plenty of uncertainty already, noted Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for Connecticut’s DOT. Any additional ambiguity from Washington is not welcome.

Nursick said that while he didn’t know enough about the proposed rule to comment, “I can say that, like other DOTs throughout the country, what we’re looking for is consistent and reliable funding for transportation projects-and preferably more funding… Our hands are full just trying to maintain the existing infrastructure that we have with the funding that we have.”