Congress Eyes Shutdown Risks, Speaker Change; Trust Fund Faces Autumn Deadlines

AASHTO Journal, 25 September 2015

House Speaker John Boehner announced his pending resignation, and congressional leaders were trying to head off a potential Oct. 1 government shutdown by offering short-term plans to pay for most government operations.

While the potential for a shutdown appeared to grow in recent days, the Highway Trust Fund would not be at risk if lawmakers let the broader government funding authority expire on Sept. 30. However, the trust fund will soon face a separate Oct. 29 deadline for its own expiration, and its cash balance could run too low in November.

But Boehner’s Sept. 25 announcement that he plans to resign as Speaker and from his House seat on Oct. 30 clouded the outlook for a broad range of issues. Some news reports, citing comments by other House members, said that made it less likely House conservatives would block a government funding measure and trigger a shutdown of most federal agencies.


Whoever leads the majority Republican caucus in the House would be able to greatly influence the agenda on issues including how to fund the Highway Trust Fund and other surface transportation programs, and when to move an extension or a long-term bill.

Meanwhile, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has not yet released its version of a long-term reauthorization of highway, transit and passenger rail programs, or scheduled a time for its members to mark up a bill. Nor has the revenue-raising Ways and Means Committee revealed how it plans to pay for a surface transportation bill.

Although those committees could act in October, that would not leave much time before Oct. 29 for the full House to pass its bill and for House negotiators to conference with senators over changes from the Senate-passed DRIVE Act.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is warning the trust fund’s highway account is on course to fall below safe levels on Nov. 20 if Congress does not provide it with more revenue by then. That is the USDOT’s latest forecast on its Trust Fund Ticker.

Still, since the trust fund’s deadlines are still weeks away and its funding assured until then, the focus in Washington was on trying to get a short-term funding measure approved for the rest of the government by the Sept. 30 end of current funding authority.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., introduced a measure to fund government through Dec. 11, but it included a controversial provision to prevent federal funding of Planned Parenthood. The White House threatened a veto and Senate Democrats along with some Republicans blocked it from advancing.

Cochran’s bill would have also extended the Federal Aviation Administration’s program authority from its current Sept. 30 expiration to March 31, 2016, to give Congress time to craft a long-term FAA bill.

But with just days left for Congress to pass a continuing spending resolution to fund most government agencies, Senate GOP leaders followed rejection of the first proposal by quickly proposing to vote on a “clean CR” without other policy issues and to extend the FAA in separate legislation. Those measures would require lawmakers to approve them without objections that could take additional legislative days to overcome.

In the Senate, however, a single senator’s objection to a “unanimous consent request” on the CR could block that plan and trigger a shutdown, and some GOP conservatives continued to oppose the strategy. Roll Call reported that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, indicated he would oppose granting consent to a clean CR.

Dozens of House conservatives reportedly objected to Boehner’s government funding strategy as well. Boehner presided on Sept. 24 over Pope Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress, and told his caucus the next morning that he would step down.

In the event of another shutdown of federal agencies on Oct. 1, such as happened in 2013, the Federal Highway Administration would continue operating under the separate trust fund authority and maintain the federal-aid highway program that reimburses states for qualifying road and bridge project costs.

However, many USDOT employees would be furloughed and programs interrupted, potentially including transit programs not covered by the trust fund, and highway safety, non-critical aviation, maritime and rail operations. It would also interrupt a wide range of DOT grant and loan approvals.

Here is a DOT shutdown plan from two years ago.

Ahead of the end-of-September risks, the Obama administration announced a range of infrastructure investment actions, including a large TIFIA loan and a number of airport improvement awards, and finalizing reviews with Virginia and North Carolina on a proposed passenger rail route. (See stories in this Journal’s ‘Nation’ section.)

It also said the USDOT and other federal agencies were taking new steps to accelerate federal infrastructure project approvals.

And looking beyond the immediate government funding issues, but with an eye to the schedule for passing a long-term surface transportation bill, senior USDOT officials launched a series of “town hall” style meetings around the country about long-term infrastructure and mobility needs.

That is in line with recent comments from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Deputy Secretary Victor Mendez that when Congress writes its final bill that measure should provide enough funding for projects that will meet goals of reducing future congestion and improving safety.

Both officials have said that the Senate’s DRIVE Act, while providing a moderate increase in funding, will not achieve those goals.

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