Since returning to work on Monday, House leaders have claimed they want to get moving on a long-term transportation bill, and they’ve begun the process by tying a 90-day extension of current policy to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Passage of the extension could start the conference committee process, with negotiators from the House and Senate working out differences between the House package and the Senate’s already-passed MAP-21 transportation bill, legislation that contains a number of positive reforms and would fund transportation through the end of the 2013 fiscal year.
But the House’s still-forming bill (HR 4348) could gut the review process that ensures transportation projects don’t plow through local communities or damage environmentally sensitive areas. And it could be loaded down with other unrelated “poison pill” provisions that would slow negotiations down.
An Unclean Extension
As the Keystone XL provision suggests, the House extension of the transportation bill would not be a straightforward (“clean”) continuation of policy. Some House members argued that, in addition to Keystone, parts of HR7—the House’s failed transportation bill—should be added to the legislation.
As a result, a handful of amendments to the extension will be debated before the House votes on the bill. One of these amendments (offered by Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin) would add many of the “environmental streamlining” provisions from HR7—provisions that would go far beyond any reasonable efforts to speed up project delivery and endanger the environment and local communities. For example, if an environmental review for a project takes longer than nine months, the project would automatically be approved, regardless of its impacts.
Another amendment, from West Virginia Rep. David McKinley, would get the federal government out of regulating “coal ash.” Like the Keystone pipeline authorization, this is an environmental provision that is both controversial and unrelated to transportation. Yesterday afternoon, the White House threatened to veto the House’s bill—a clear sign that attaching Keystone and other partisan provisions to a transportation bill could sink the whole effort.
The House’s bill is scheduled to be voted on at 3:45 pm today (with necessary procedural votes scheduled for earlier in the day).
The Right Way Forward
The country hasn’t passed a long-term transportation bill since the last one expired 931 days ago. Passing the Senate’s transportation bill, or a “clean” extension bill that allows negotiations to begin with the Senate, are the surest ways for the House to make progress toward bipartisan transportation legislation that will put Americans back to work and make sure they can get there. Today’s political maneuvers are a dead-end street.