A new version of the 2012 federal highway authorization law quickly could be passed with few changes out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., a committee member. The problem is finding a way to pay for it.
Speaking Wednesday before and after a meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus, a seven-state coalition of advocates and legislators meeting this week in Little Rock, Crawford said the reforms created by MAP-21 enjoy broad support in the committee. One possible change would be allowing motor carriers to test drivers for drugs using hair samples rather than urine. Hair samples provide evidence of drug use over longer periods of time.
However, the committee can’t pass a new transportation bill until it knows what funding would be available, and that comes out of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Members of that committee, led by Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, are considering a number of provisions, including reducing tax rates to encourage corporations to repatriate profits currently overseas. Crawford said that mechanism would lead to uncertain revenues. Another option is increasing royalties on federal land.
“The Ways and Means Committee operates a lot like the Intel Committee. They play it real close to the vest, and they’re not leaking anything,” he said in an interview.
The current highway funding mechanism, the fuel tax, has not been raised since 1993 and is proving inadequate to fund current highway needs. MAP-21 was set to expire May 31 until Congress extended it for two months. It authorizes the Highway Trust Fund, which funds highway projects. The fund will become insolvent in August.
Highway bills typically last at least five years, but MAP-21 originally lasted less than two until it was extended. Crawford said a five- or six-year plan realistically could be passed this time. A long-term bill would help highway constructors better plan for projects.
“We can’t continue to do short-term patches and expect these contractors to not lay people off as they’re waiting for us to come up with a long-term funding model,” he said.
Crawford, also a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, said he supports ending the trade embargo with Cuba as it currently exists, calling it a “vestige of the Cold War.” Increased trade would help both the United States and Cuba. He said Cubans must rely on inferior food because of the embargo – including buying rice from Vietnam that takes 36 days to ship, versus 36 hours from the United States.
He also expressed support for extending trade promotion authority to the president, meaning he or she would be able to negotiate trade agreements subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress, with Congress providing guidelines beforehand. Lacking that authority would make it difficult for the president to negotiate agreements because foreign governments would not know how Congress would amend them, he said.