The countdown has begun to the Jan. 31 deadline when the current authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration expires. At the last check, lawmakers were no closer to a resolution on their disagreements than they were in September. The contentious dispute about how rail and aviation workers vote for unions has been kicked up to House and Senate leaders, who continue to be distracted by other issues. Shortly before the holidays, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., visibly winced when asked whether he was preparing another temporary extension for the FAA, saying only that House members "won't like it" if they have to push off the long-overdue measure yet again.
Then there is the surface transportation authorization, set to expire on March 31. Granted, Congress has a little more time to hammer out the details of that bill, which has the added political benefit of being a genuine job creator. Still there are problems. Text of the House bill has yet to materialize, and House leaders' plan to include new domestic oil drilling likely will not cover the full cost of maintaining the nation's roads and bridges. The drilling provision, opposed by most Democrats, will be a political distraction at the very least. It is not hard to imagine the drilling/highway debate mushrooming into a bitter shouting match just as the spring car-travel season approaches with its perennial increase in gas prices. The scenario doesn't bode well for hard-core compromises on transportation funding formulas.
Nobody wants more temporary extensions, but the congressional environment makes it difficult to envision a different outcome before the election. What will happen if there are more extensions of the aviation and surface transportation authorizations? Are there benefits, even small ones, to putting off the tough decisions until lawmakers are in a better mood? Would it make sense to punt and extend both authorizations until 2013? Or should Congress force the discussion by enacting shorter-term stopgaps? Will there be genuine political consequences (like members' seats at risk) if Congress fails to complete the transportation measures?