At what has become her weekly update on the transportation conference committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., last week said conferees are making steady progress toward a compromise bill that renews federal surface transportation authority for the first time in roughly three years.
About 80 percent of the Senate bill is "non-controversial," she said. Consolidating programs? They found agreement on that. Strong financing provisions? Everyone's on board. Eliminating earmarks? Got it. Pay-fors? They reached compromise on that, too, Boxer said.
"From what I know, I think they found a very sweet spot, a good way to pay for this that will gain very, very broad support among Republicans," Boxer said in the middle of her 20-minute press conference on Wednesday.
Whatever that "sweet spot" is, the pay-fors in a compromise bill will still most likely closely resemble what's in the current Senate bill, a fact underscored by the Joint Committee on Taxation's Friday release comparing the revenue provisions in the House and Senate bills, showing that, well, the House bill doesn't have any.
But the Senate bill isn't free from controversy. Critics complain it uses offsets over the next decade just to fund a year and a few months. And the Senate bill draws $2 billion in 2012 and another $2 billion in 2013 "out of money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated." There is no dedicated source of funding; it comes from a variety of places.
The Highway Trust Fund is clearly unsustainable, but is this the new normal? Is this simply the future of infrastructure investment? Or is there a politically viable alternative to what amounts to Congress searching the couch cushions for funding whenever transportation authority comes up for renewal? Is a dedicated fund still necessary? If so, what could it look like?