This One’s a True Porker

The Senate passed a transportation bill this week to replace a House bill that was killed by fiscal conservatives for being filled with “pork and special interest projects.” Not surprisingly, the Senate bill is far worse.

Where the House bill authorized deficit spending to the tune of about $10 billion a year, the Senate bill would deficit-spend about $15 billion a year. Where the House bill had no earmarks and few big-government expansions, the Senate bill has several earmarks, discourages the states from leasing roads to private partners, and expands federal regulation of public and private transit and intercity bus systems.

Fiscal conservatives pinned their hopes on an amendment that would allow states to opt out of federal funding by raising their gas taxes by the 18.4 cents that the federal government collects, thus cutting out the feds as middle man. The Senate predictably and decisively rejected this amendment by 68 to 30. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, Calif.) argued that the amendment would “devolve” the highway fund, which of course was the whole point.

I’ve long argued that the only way to devolve federal transportation spending to the states is to first take the pork out of the gas tax. The House bill did this by rededicating gas taxes to roads (making them once again a true user fee), distributing gas taxes using formulas (preventing Congress from earmarking), and paying for transit out of other funds. Once the pork was gone, Congress would lose interest and let the states take over. The Senate bill, of course, does none of these things, and in particular continues to dedicate a share of gas taxes to transit, which will make it a lot harder to devolve gas taxes to the states.

The only good news is that the Senate bill is just a two-year bill, which means the whole debate can begin again in 2014 if not 2013. But the House has just two weeks to accept or reject the bill, as the current law expires on March 31. If they can’t reach an agreement by March 31, they are likely to simply extend the current law, which is not a whole lot different from approving the Senate bill.

If the House had been able to pass its bill, it would have been in a much stronger position to negotiate some improvements to the Senate bill. As it is, it now has a choice between the bad law now on the books or the slightly worse bill passed by the Senate. Fiscal conservatives should encourage the House to reject the Senate bill and start the debate over.