Nearly lost in the kerfuffle late last week as Republicans traded barbs on the Senate floor were at least two important pieces of legislation: reauthorization and funding for the Highway Trust Fund and revival of the now-mothballed Export-Import Bank.
It was a proposal to roll reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank into the highway bill that caused the temper tantrum in the Senate, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz calling Senate Majority Leader and fellow — and we use the term “fellow” loosely — Republican Mitch McConnell a liar for allowing a vote on the bank. Cruz and other conservative Republicans oppose the Ex-Im Bank.
We’ve called several times for continuation of the bank’s services. It provides loans, loan guarantees and insurance that promotes U.S. exports to other countries from small, medium and large businesses. It’s self-supporting and actually returns a profit to the Treasury, while facilitating trade that supports jobs at companies as large as Boeing on down to small businesses throughout the county.
This time, however, we can’t recommend passage of the Senate bill, which the Senate may or may not pass before it joins the House for its August recess. House leadership has already called the bill dead on arrival. As much as Washington state and the nation need the services of the Ex-Im Bank, the Senate’s transportation bill is flawed and doesn’t go far enough as a long-term correction of our neglect of highways, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.
Although sold as a six-year bill, it includes funding for only three years, allowing the Senate to sidestep the difficult but necessary debate on an increase in the federal gasoline tax. Simply put, three years of funding isn’t close to adequate.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who represents the 2nd Congressional District, points out another flaw in the Senate bill: The legislation would change the funding formula for ferries, favoring passenger ferries, which are more common on the East Coast, over vehicle ferries, which make up the entirety of Washington State Ferries’ 24-vessel fleet. Initially, the change in formula would not result in less money for the state ferry system but could if overall funding were reduced later.
Because the Highway Trust Fund expires on Friday, Congress has very little time to resolve this. The House is proposing a three-month extension, previously five months, that would give Congress time to tackle a longer-term bill when it returns in September. A short-term extension would at least allow highway projects now underway or scheduled to begin soon to continue without interruption.
Longer term, Larsen and others in the House have proposed the Grow America Act, which would inject $478 billion into the federal Highway Trust Fund. That scale of investment is necessary and it is likely to require an increase in the federal gas tax of about 8 to 10 cents a gallon. It’s time for Congress to have that debate.
Also on its to-do list when it returns in September, the House and Senate also must reopen the Export-Import Bank. Further delay could jeopardize deals that businesses large and small depend upon.
And if it can do both without resorting to personal attacks, all the better.