Vote patches highways, but solution remains temporary

Seeing the ease with which U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, moved a major water-projects bill through Congress over the past year, a casual observer might think he’d have the same luck with an even bigger goal: Keeping money flowing to highway work nationwide for years to come.

With Congress now set to approve only a few months’ funding and some Republicans seeking to tear down the entire highway-funding system, however, getting federal money to America’s roads looks like a far tougher task.

In a 367-55 vote Tuesday, House members bought themselves about 10 months to find a long-term solution for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road work across the country. President Barack Obama has backed the deal, but the Senate hasn’t yet voted on a similar measure.

The Department of Transportation has warned lawmakers that the fund will likely run out of money in August if nothing is done.

The $10 billion agreement keeps money moving to road work – and hundreds of thousands of workers on the job, according to government statements – by pulling cash from other funds and using a financial trick that could drain government coffers down the road.

The bill, which Shuster cosponsored, allows corporations to temporarily reduce pension contributions, increasing their taxable income and pumping more money into federal programs (like highways). But down the line, the same companies will have to put more into pensions, ultimately reducing tax money.

“We have an immediate, critical need to address the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and extend the current surface transportation law,” Shuster said in a statement accompanying the bill. “This bill does that in a responsible way with policies that have all previously received strong bipartisan and bicameral support.”

While representatives from both parties, including most Republicans, approved the extension, dozens in the GOP have thrown their support behind an alternative plan that would slash federal involvement in highways, cutting the national gas tax and leaving states to deal with road funding.

The Transportation Empowerment Act (unsubtly called the TEA Act), has 48 cosponsors – a bloc that could pose problems for a long-term highway deal.

Conservative pressure groups including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth have lined up against a “status quo” extension, as well, warning Republican lawmakers that support for this week’s 10-month deal would mean a lower score in their ratings.

But with most House Republicans, including Shuster, now free from conservative primary challengers, they have less to fear from right-wing groups’ criticism. In fact, the trouble pushing through a highway bill has led some in Congress to revisit a tactic those groups would find unthinkable: earmarks.

During a hearing last week, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., reminded Shuster that legislation moved more smoothly in the era when his father, Bud Shuster, was in charge of highway legislation, news site Roll Call reported. He suggested his Republican colleagues consider resurrecting earmarks, the taxpayer-funded hometown projects Congress has suspended for several years.

“I think one of the reasons why we were able to pass a transportation bill, when your dad was the chairman, overwhelmingly … was because every member had some skin in the game,” McGovern said, according to Roll Call. “They actually were able to see where this funding would go in their district and how it would make a difference.”

In other news:

n Gov. Tom Corbett continued his fight this week against Democratic challenger Tom Wolf in recent days, but a less-than-stellar rating from a national political magazine didn’t help his case.

Corbett ran ads against Wolf and even drew Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for a fundraiser last week, seeking $250,000 toward his multimillion-dollar re-election campaign. In their mid-campaign rankings, however, the National Journal named Corbett a “dead man walking,” citing a nearly two-to-one deficit in one poll.

n Shuster, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-5th District, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and a handful of fellow Republican lawmakers have filed a court brief backing a Pennsylvania farm coalition’s fight against federal water regulations.

The court case, pitting the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau against the Environmental Protection Agency in federal court, follows a lower court’s ruling in favor of the government agency. The farm group and its allies have sought to overturn federal rules intended to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed from farm runoff.

“The EPA has continued a quixotic pursuit to put forth oppressive mandates that threaten the economic livelihood of our local farms and businesses,” Thompson said in a statement.

Mirror Staff Reporter Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.