It was a pretty poor showing last Friday for an idea touted by House Republican leaders just a year and a half ago. On Friday, only about one-third of the House Republicans cast their votes in favor of a nonbinding, message to legislators that they should keep infrastructure spending within the limits of the highway trust fund, which would have the practical effect of cutting highway funding by about one-third.
Sponsored by hard-core tea partier Rep. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., the nonbinding instruction to lawmakers only got 82 votes, all from Republicans. The idea was a simple one, to live within our means. But it has such broad-reaching implications for the federal highway program that even serious conservatives like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp, R-Mich., voted against it. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is leading the conference committee on the highway bill, cheered the result. "I am very encouraged today that the House of Representatives soundly defeated an irresponsible proposal to cut transportation spending by many billions of dollars," she said. "This bipartisan vote sends a strong signal to the transportation conference committee that we should reach agreement swiftly."
There are signs that a resolution may be near. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week proposed a twofer funding option, using federal pension accounting, to pay for a highway bill and a one-year freeze of a 3.4 percent student loan interest rate. Republicans appear at least willing to consider the idea, but there is so much distrust on both sides of the aisle that both political parties need to calm down and keep away from the TV cameras to make it happen.
Is it now passé to call for keeping infrastructure funding within the highway trust fund? What has changed since the beginning of this Congress that has allowed so many Republicans to comfortably say that current highway funding levels should be maintained? How does a conversation about the highway trust fund and its limitations impact the infrastructure debate? Was Broun's maneuver useful to the conversation or was it a distraction?