Everybody take a deep breath. Congress is poised this week to appoint conferees to a long-awaited conference committee that will negotiate a highway bill. Finally. I know that President Obama has dangled a veto threat over the House version, and I know that Republicans are determined to link the politically volatile Keystone XL pipeline to a bipartisan infrastructure bill. It doesn't matter. Fundamentally, this conference committee is a good thing. It gives lawmakers who are familiar with the ins and outs of transportation policy the opportunity to actually hammer out some decent tweaks to the federal highway program.
Streamline the Transportation Department's funding silos? Members in both parties are all for it. Speed up infrastructure projects? Damn right. The concepts have support, but the details also matter. That's the beauty of a conference committee--it focuses on details. And when the political leaders decide they need to act to extend the highway program, as they always do, those details will be ready to go. Other members will talk on the floor about gas prices and energy production. But who cares? In the end, lawmakers aren't going to turn their backs on a longer-term highway bill if all the major players have signed off on it.
Now, if they could just get to that point. Negotiators have about two months to make enough progress to show that they're serious about finishing a bill this year. After that, members will be looking forward to an August break and the fall elections, and they will be more than willing to push off the talks until next year. The fact that they haven't punted yet indicates that they intend to make a go of it. They have an advantage in that the big problems already have solutions, even if they aren't great. A funding mechanism already exists in the form of the Senate bill. And it's clear the new law can't go longer than two years unless someone pulls a budget rabbit out of a hat.
What are the chances that lawmakers succeed on negotiating a smaller bill? How far apart are Republicans and Democrats on the structure of the revamped highway program? Do the Keystone and gas price talking points add to or detract from that conversation, if they have an impact at all? Will the policy conversations that take place over the next few months benefit future highway bills?