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Andrew T. Gillies is Director of Communications at the Center for Audit Quality, an affiliate of the American Institute of CPAs, in Washington, DC. Based in Washington since 2002, he has also worked in editorial and communications roles at the Investment Company Institute, the World Bank, Forbes, and Vault.com. His policy-themed writing has focused on aerospace and defense, energy and environment, transportation, and financial services.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Highway Lobby: Smooth Operators

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Despite Congress' fitful efforts to renew a multiyear federal transportation bill, the highway lobby has once again proved its reputation as one of Washington's most effective operators. How effective? Think $52 billion.

Since 1991, funding for highway and mass transit has been rolled up into a giant package reauthorized every six years. The existing law, a $218 billion program known as Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), was enacted in 1998. It expired last September.

Things haven't been pretty since. Congress has sent President George W. Bush no less than five extensions of TEA-21 to keep money flowing to federally funded transportation projects. In February and April, respectively, the Senate and House passed their differing versions of the reauthorization bill. Members of a conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate bills have been at work since early June.

The big holdup: money. In November, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed a generous package totaling $375 billion, with a hike in fuel taxes as a possible way to pay for it.

But the tax-averse House ultimately settled on a more modest $275 billion version of the bill. The Senate came in at $318 billion. The Bush Administration, smarting from charges of fiscal profligacy, was the stingiest, with a $247 billion proposal--and it backed that lower number with a rare veto threat.

Just before legislators left for their August recess, however, a flurry of negotiations took place. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, offered up a $301 billion compromise. Two days later, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman William Thomas, R-Calif., offered a $299 billion proposal, which he said had White House backing. The conference committee adjourned for the break without acting on either arrangement.

But the highway crowd can tentatively declare victory: $299 billion is a long way from the $247 billion line in the sand that the Bush Administration had originally drawn.

Full story at Forbes.com