For Better or Worse, It’s "Regular Order" on Highway Bill

The House will have to deal with dozens of amendments, but members are under pressure to deliver.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster and House Speaker Paul Ryan at a news conference on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Members of Congress have promised President Obama they’d send him a new long-term transportation bill just in time for Thanksgiving.

But first, there’s just a little detour known as “regular order.”

The House on Tuesday kicked off debate on a six-year, $325 billion bill to keep money flowing to highway and transit projects, the first long-term transportation bill in a decade. But a stacked list of difficult amendments is on deck for the rest of the week.

The House Rules Committee late Tuesday made in order 81 more amendments to the bill, on top of the 45 that had already come up (and down from the 300 or so offered to the committee).

It’s likely to set up a lengthy floor debate for rookie Speaker Paul Ryan’s first major piece of legislation, but largely skirts free of controversial extraneous amendments that could muddy what was supposed to be a quick conference with the Senate—or even lose enough support to stop it from getting out of the House.

Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Tuesday that he was “very excited, truly” about the “open process” on the bill, even with the hundreds of amendments under consideration. And Ryan on Tuesday touted the debate as a preview of the “deliberative and participatory process” that he’d oversee in the House.

But there’s also a downside to a freewheeling amendment debate.

“There are amendments that are improvements, there are several amendments that could be very problematic,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio, ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, before the final rule was out. “It concerns me, but that’s the way the House should work.”

As to whether the amendment debate might push the House bill too far away from the Senate’s, DeFazio simply said “that’s why you have a conference.”

The House essentially picked up a bill passed by the Senate in July, but swapped out the policy provisions for its own. Lobbyists and members say the policy language is close enough that differences could likely be hashed out in a conference.

The bill requires an additional $16 billion per year to supplement the Highway Trust Fund and keep spending at current levels. The pay-fors on the House bill remained the same as the Senate’s, a collection of various offsets that would fund the bill for just three years, rather than the full six years.

Shuster said Monday that he hoped the pay-fors wouldn’t change, to make it easier to get to conference. Traditionally the House funding language has come from the House Ways and Means Committee, so having no independent measure from that committee puts the House in uncharted waters.

Then there’s the schedule to consider. Congress has only extended the Highway Trust Fund until November 20, and the Department of Transportation has cautioned that anything beyond that could plunge the transportation sector into chaos.

Around that date, DOT projects that the balance of the trust fund—fed by the dwindling receipts from the federal gas tax—dips below the “prudent cash balance level” of $4 billion, at which point the DOT may have to start slowing reimbursements to states.

The balance will rise again at the beginning of December, but will begin to see-saw around that limit before going into the red in the spring. That—plus a crowded post-Thanksgiving agenda—has added more urgency to the push to hammer out an agreement and pass a bill out of both chambers in a few weeks.

That’s why some members are so determined to keep the most controversial amendments off of the bill. Shuster, leading Republicans on the floor, urged members to stay away from more troublesome amendments, like one from Rep. Reid Ribble that would let states raise the weight limit for trucks allowed on highways.

Trucking groups say that the proposal would mean fewer trucks on the road with more productivity, but safety groups have warned that heavier trucks would pose a greater threat (the Department of Transportation has also said that there’s not enough data to recommend a change). The amendment failed in a 187-236 vote Monday night, clearing one major potential hurdle.

Of the 81 amendments due to see floor time, most are focused on policy provisions in the bill, rather than a host of other measures members had sought to attach. Language lifting the country’s ban on crude oil exports, for example, did not make the cut after fears that it could lose Democratic support.

Ten amendments deal with the Export-Import Bank, which was included in the Senate-passed bill. Republicans are split over the bank, although a separate measure reauthorizing the bank did clear the House last month (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not been open to moving an independent Ex-Im reauthorization).

But there’s no amendment that would strip the measure from the bill entirely, instead the focus is on changes like barring the bank from dealing with certain wealthy countries or increasing the loans available for small businesses. Democratic whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that he’s urged his party to vote against any Ex-Im amendments.

The list also skirts some controversy on the funding sources, a hodge-podge of pay-fors assembled by the Senate that included sales from the coun­try’s pet­ro­leum re­serve and cuts to di­vidends paid to large banks. Several Democrat-backed amendments that would have raised the gas tax or set up a separate user fee did not make the bill, nor did a bipartisan amendment from Rep. Jim Renacci that authorized the Treasury Department to raise the gas tax after three years if Congress had not funded the bill another way.

Rep. Ron DeSantis offered up an amendment that would turn over taxing and spending authority to states, although that’s unlikely to pass. Reps. Randy Neugebauer and Bill Huizenga have an amendment that would liquidate the Federal Reserve surplus account.

Members are hoping to wrap up the bill before the end of the day Thursday.

This story has been updated to reflect the final rule.