The U.S. Senate must be suffering from lame duck amnesia. In last night’s debate on a Highway Trust Fund (HTF) patch, it approved an amendment that sets the patch to expire in December 2014—the lame-duck session of Congress and significantly sooner than the May 31, 2015, date approved by the House.
Lame ducks are hurried, politicized, and lacking in accountability and transparency—qualities that lend themselves to policies that increase the size of government. Under a lame-duck effort to pass a multiyear transportation reauthorization bill or yet another HTF patch, the motorists, truckers, and now general taxpayers contributing to the HTF could reasonably expect efforts to generate revenue, such as hiking the federal gas or diesel tax rates.
That’s because Congress has so far looked to revenue proposals and ignored spending cuts or other transportation reforms to make up for the $15 billion gap between HTF spending and revenue.
House leaders have offered public reminders of the theatrics and harmful policies that a lame duck could bring to this debate. For example, Ways and Committee chairman Dave Camp (R–MI) has warned, “What troubles me most about a Dec. 31, 2014, date are those using it as a ploy to stick the American people with a massive increase in the gas tax—just about the worst tax increase Congress could hit hardworking Americans with.”
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R–PA) also described the “manufactured crisis in December” that would result, in which “some might be inclined to play politics with these issues or use them as vehicles for unrelated policies that should be subject to the full and open debate they deserve.”
Congress and the American people have begun a crucial conversation about the appropriate size and scope of the federal government’s role in transportation policy. There is real debate occurring over what flexibility and control would be best given to the states and what activities the private sector could do better than Washington could.
A lame-duck session of Congress is no time to have a real debate.