It was a throwback to another era. Despite a decade of assaults on new taxes and pork-barrel spending, the House Public Works & Transportation Committee in August readied a $153.7 billion transportation bill that included a venerable formula for political success: bringing the federal bacon home to constituents. The measure calls for a nickel-a-gallon rise in federal gas taxes, worth $33 billion over five years, and $6.5 billion in new spending on "demonstration" projects--many of which happen to be in the states of senior committee members.
But the panel's decision, which had the strong support of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), is confronting more and more roadblocks. As the Sept. 30 deadline for approving funds for fiscal 1992 approaches, the measure faces a hostile reception on the House floor and a certain White House veto. "We are unwilling to work with any bill that has a gas tax," declares Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner.
What's more, the transportation bill has implications that go beyond how much money is poured into projects championed by the committee's top four members, Chairman Robert A. Roe (D-N. J.), ranking minority member John P. Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.), surface transportation subcommittee Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), and his GOP counterpart, E. G. (Bud) Shuster (R-Pa.). This is a story of brazenness and miscalculation--and of some new political rules on Capitol Hill.
CRUMBLING BRIDGES. With the nation's interstate highway system nearly complete, the Bush Administration early this year opened the bidding on the transportation bill with a relatively modest $105.4 billion package. But Democrats contend that far more must be spent to refurbish the nation's crumbling roads and bridges. The Coalition for an Efficient National Transportation System (CENTS), a new umbrella organization of builders, contractors, and local officials, estimates that in the 43,000-mile interstate highway system, more than 3,800 bridges are structurally deficient and 42% of the pavement is in poor or only fair shape.
By June, the Senate had upped the ante, approving a $124.2 billion measure that shied away from new taxes and even included reforms that reduced a federal funding bias toward roads and against mass transit. Under the Senate bill, states would have discretion on how to split $45 billion among buses, subways, and highways (table).
That wasn't enough for the House Public Works Committee. It pumped in billions more to pour concrete for roads. And the panel proposed a sixfold increase in funding for such demonstration projects as using new forms of asphalt. The committee also called for the nickel boost, to 19~ per gallon, in the gas tax, which supporters said would promote conservation and was the kind of "targeted" tax hike that had sold well in states that rejected general tax hikes.
But when word leaked out that a third of the demonstration-project money would be set aside for work in the home states of the four committee elders, the panel was caught red-handed--if not red-faced. "It's one of the benefits of being in the big four," says Shuster, whose home state, Pennsylvania, would get nearly $1 billion for demonstration projects. "That is a political reality." And then, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) pointed out that under current budget rules, the committee couldn't legally spend all the money that the gas tax would raise.
BATTLE LINES. That wasn't the panel's only misjudgment. Despite the House leadership's support, rank-and-filers aren't about to follow. As opposition built, a humiliated Foley was forced to pull the bill from floor consideration just before the August recess. "People aren't in the mood to have any more tax increases, especially when they know the tax would support questionable road projects," says a Ways & Means aide. "The votes aren't there because Democrats realize that a decent run at the White House in 1992 doesn't begin with a tax increase."
During the August recess, both opponents and supporters of the bill revved up for an intense lobbying effort. "We will go around and push this over the next couple of weeks in spite of the veto threat," declares CENTS President T. Peter Ruane. Meanwhile, the trucking industry and the 32-million-member American Automobile Assn., which usually back road-building programs but oppose a gas tax, have lined up against the bill. "What they've done is indefensible," says AAA spokesman John F. Haifley. "They've overdone it this time."
With both sides digging in, an accord by Sept. 30 is unlikely. Instead, Congress will probably pass a short-term spending measure to keep current projects going. In the end, something close to the Senate measure is expected to prevail. Pork-barrel politics may not be over, but its practitioners no longer enjoy an automatic green light.
HOW TRANSPORTATION BILLS DIFFER Provision Senate House Funding over five years $124.2 billion $153.7 billion Gas tax No increase 5~ a gallon Percentage of mass-transit programs Washington will finance 75%, or 90% if 80% program complies with Clean Air Act or Americans with Disabilities Act DATA: BW