Seeing a Man About a Horse

One can distill the House of Representatives’ struggle to pass a comprehensive transportation bill into a narrow, 40 minute period last Wednesday afternoon.

GOP leaders have attempted to advance a transportation and infrastructure package through the House since last November. But fissures among rank-and-file Republicans – coupled with an unwillingness by Democrats to sign onto the measure – have made passing the bill virtually impossible. Meantime, lawmakers stared at a Saturday night deadline which would have short-circuited most transportation funding and automatically halted the collection of the 18.4 cent gasoline tax used to fund federal highway projects.

Around 2:20 pm Wednesday, Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) sauntered into the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor. Mica was clearly frustrated with the House Republican leadership. A gaggle of reporters surrounded Mica, who informed them he would file a 60-day extension of the highway bill that afternoon. The stopgap measure would keep highway money flowing at existing levels. This Band-Aid approach would forestall a shutdown of construction projects already in the pipeline and bar a partial closure of the Federal Highway Administration. After all, a similar impasse forced a shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration last summer.

Democrats were already on record opposing the two-month bill. Mica appeared weary. But he was undaunted.

“I think the Republican position prevails and we’ll move forward with it,” he said.

Then around 3 pm, the Florida Republican resurfaced in the Speaker’s Lobby.

“I have a new plan,” Mica declared, indicating he was also prepping a 90 day extension of the highway bill to stave off a catastrophic transportation program shutdown Saturday night.

Wednesday marked the third consecutive day that a highway measure appeared on the House schedule without a final vote. So Mica’s reversal was just the latest maneuver in a process that was “fluid” even by Capitol Hill standards.

A reporter asked Mica why he filed a three-month transportation extension on the heels of the two-month bill he announced just minutes before.

“Because I was told to,” muttered an exasperated Mica.

And the next day, the House threw the 90-day interim bill on the floor to keep the transportation programs from going dark over the weekend.

The exercise rankled Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).

“This is like a bad soap opera. Just when the twists and turns can’t get more fantastical, and crazy, someone comes up with an even zanier idea just to keep the plot lines moving along,” moaned McGovern on the House floor. Thursday. “I’m waiting for the mysterious twin brother to show up.”

Republicans tried to blame Democrats for not approving a comprehensive transportation package when they controlled the House, Senate and White House. They also lambasted Democrats for not signing on to the original bill which Mica rolled out over the winter. But most believe that argument’s a red herring. Certainly Democrats opposed the original bill on a variety of issues, ranging from safety to the length of the package. But the real problem was that Republicans couldn’t conjure up enough votes on their side of the aisle to pass it unilaterally without Democratic assistance. A litany of coalitions emerged opposing the transportation bill. So there was almost no way the GOP leadership could find sufficient votes to usher it to passage.

“They’ve got a bunch of bozos in their caucus who don’t believe we should have a transportation bill,” lamented Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR). “It’s the whole small-government crowd. If they do what the ‘Flat Earth’ people want to do, they lose the moderates. If they do what the moderates want to do they lose the ‘Flat Earth’ people. They’re experimenting and their experiment has failed.”

Republicans may not have liked how DeFazio characterized GOPers opposed to the transportation effort. But DeFazio’s comments certainly reflect the conundrum now facing the House Republican brass. And nothing DeFazio said hasn’t been uttered in private by Republican leaders or their aides.

The “experiment” DeFazio referred to is the gambit by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to pass a major legislative initiative with only GOP support. Boehner’s been unable to achieve that this Congress, having to turn repeatedly to Democrats for help with a variety of high-profile bills. Such was the case last year when the House voted to avoid multiple government shutdowns, raised the debt limit and extended the payroll tax break.

Boehner may enjoy a robust, 52-seat majority in the House. But it’s a majority lacking cohesion when it comes to big-ticket legislation. That’s precisely why Boehner’s had to rely on Democrats repeatedly to muscle through significant measures.

Boehner rolled out the primary tenets of his transportation package last fall during an invitation-only briefing with about 25 reporters assembled around a long table in the Speaker’s conference room.

At the time, Republicans were reeling from the bruising debt ceiling fight. Economic growth remained tepid. So Boehner began to craft a sweeping measure which would expand oil and gas drilling to pay for transportation programs. Boehner believed revenue collected from the energy resources would help pay for the program. Plus, he argued that it was essential for the country to invest in roads and bridges to bolster the shipment of products and commodities to spur the economy.

Plus, Boehner labeled his effort as a “jobs bill” as politicians of both parties have done since the economy went into a tailspin four years ago.

“Our bill links job creating, energy production and infrastructure together,” Boehner boasted at the time.

It was natural for Democrats to pounce on the drilling part. After all, they could suggest that Boehner and Republicans were helping “Big Oil.” But Boehner believed that the energy component of the package would court even the most skeptical of Republicans. Boehner seemed to have found a parliamentary magic bullet which would switch nay votes to yeas on controversial bills: include a provision to expedite construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Boehner was left with no other option to sweeten the pot ever since Congress banned earmarks.

Earmarks have long been the honey that party leaders and committee chairs use to lure recalcitrant lawmakers to vote for transportation bills. Earmarks are specific provisions tucked into legislation which call for constructing a bridge or a road in a specific place. About ten earmarks surfaced in the 1982 transportation package. That figure ballooned to more than 6,000 a few years ago. In other words, lawmakers who wouldn’t back a bill before were sure to do so now because they were guaranteed an earmark that would be beneficial to their district or state. Party leaders learned to dole out earmarks like a kindergarten teacher does M&M’s to well-behaved students at recess.

Boehner hates earmarks. He’s never taken one in his more than two decades in Congress. And his goal for the transportation legislation was to design a bill which could cross the finish line without buying off reluctant members with earmarks.

The Ohio Republican may be well-intentioned. But so far, that strategy isn’t working as the sides imply can’t find the votes to pass a long-term highway bill. That’s why the nation now lives under a three-month extension.

Democrats claim a longer-term solution is available. The Senate just passed a bipartisan two-year highway bill with wide, bipartisan support. Democrats are quick to point out that political polar opposites developed the compromise: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Therefore, House Republicans should take notice of the Senate’s action.

“Boehner is once again in a corner due to the tea party caucus,” argued Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

So both bodies of Congress are now on a two-week recess with transportation programs funded until the end of June. On Thursday, Boehner discussed bringing up a longer-term transportation package after the break which includes enhanced energy and jobs provisions.

That failed to impress House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

“What’s going to happen after we come back? What miracle is going to enlighten us?” asked Pelosi. “I’m a big believer in prayer. I don’t use it for legislation. But maybe that’s what we should do.”

Regardless,  the transportation bill is the essence of the management problem that’s perplexed House GOP leaders since the start of this Congress: How do they persuade intransigent Republicans to vote for major legislative initiatives? Many conservatives feel burned by the spending deals the House approved last year because they didn’t cut deeply enough. Some were beside themselves when Congress upped the debt ceiling last summer. The payroll tax deal may have been the last straw for many. So it’s little surprise that House Republicans can’t find enough Republican votes to approve the highway measure without turning to Democrats.

“I need to go see a man about a horse,” explained John Mica when he finally tried to elude reporters last Wednesday in the Speaker’s Lobby. The expression confused scribes not familiar with that old saw. Many were still bewildered by Mica’s quick oscillation between 60 and 90 day transportation plans.

At the rate this legislation is going, those who failed to understand Mica’s equine, idiomatic expression could perhaps take his words as prophecy. Congress faces a real challenge to solve this transportation puzzle. Otherwise, some may believe Mica is truly preparing to get around on horseback. And cynics might suggest that’s not a far-fetched a scenario considering the state of the nation’s aging transportation system.