In November 2011, I wrote a somewhat optimistic article about the federal highway bill and the positive momentum it was gaining in both the U.S. House and Senate. For the first time in several years, it seemed as if meaningful transportation reform was within reach—an opportunity to lift unnecessary and burdensome transportation rules from farm and ranch operations.
Unfortunately, six months have passed and all we have witnessed are extensions of current transportation law and continued discussions between House and Senate negotiators. The question remains if Congress will be able to overcome what seem to be insurmountable differences and manage to secure enough votes to pass the bill in both houses and still manage to secure President Obama’s signature at the end of the day. The Capitol Hill spin, both positive and negative, causes even the most seasoned D.C. insiders to hedge their bets on how House and Senate leaders will manage their ever-growing to-do list.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who is leading Senate negotiators, suggests that negotiations will conclude with a successful highway bill before the end of June, and that the main reason for the holdup is stubborn House Republicans. On the other side of the Hill, House Republicans suggest that Senate negotiators are to blame for not working with them on important provisions like the Keystone Pipeline. Regardless of who you believe, only one truth remains -- the current highway bill will expire at the end of June. If Congress fails to pass a highway bill, what should we expect?
Without question, neither party can afford the political ramifications of being labeled a job killer by letting transportation law expire. That being said, it is highly probable that we will see another extension of the current highway bill. Before I speculate on the length of the extension, let us consider all of the other priorities on Congress’s to-do list that must be accomplished in the next few months.
• Congress must find a way to fund the federal government. The fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Prior to Oct. 1, Congress is supposed to set a budget for the federal government and appropriate funding to each section of the federal government within the budgetary guidelines. The Senate has not yet passed a budget, and both Houses still have numerous appropriations bills to pass prior to the Oct. 1 deadline. If Congress fails to pass the appropriations bills, they may very well pass a short-term extension through December to prevent the government from shutting down right before Election Day.
Following the heated budget debate of last year, Congress will probably continue to focus efforts on budget sequestration, which means major cuts to defense spending and domestic spending. Not a comfortable topic during election year, but a top priority nonetheless.
• Congress must also pass a new farm bill prior to Oct. 1, or an extension of the current farm bill law to avoid 1940’s farm laws from kicking in—a fate the agriculture industry desperately wants to avoid.
• In order to avoid a credit downgrade, Congress may also have to consider increasing the debt ceiling beyond the current ceiling at $16.394 trillion. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner estimates that U.S. borrowing could hit the debt ceiling by the end of 2012.
• Some of the major provisions of the tax code will expire at the end of 2012. Most notably, the 2001 and 2003 income tax cuts, the current estate tax relief, capital gains rates, and many other key provisions will expire unless Congress acts.
This is a lot to accomplish in a non-election year, much less in an election year when the entire U.S. House of Representatives, a third of the U.S. Senate, and the White House are up for a vote. Now take into perspective how long Congress will actually be in session before then. The House and Senate will be in session for a handful of weeks in June and July and adjourned for the entire month of August. Both houses will come back for a couple of weeks in September, and then will probably be gone until after Election Day to take care of their political responsibilities. That leaves only a few weeks in November and December to take care of a long list of important items.
Speaker of the House John Boehner stated last week that if House and Senate negotiators fail to meet the June 30 deadline, he will call for a six-month extension of the highway bill. That means Congress would have to either squeeze in the highway bill after Election Day or vote on another extension in December, pushing the highway bill into the next Congress.
For months I have been looking forward to writing a positive follow-up on the highway bill, highlighting the benefits for the beef industry and sharing in that breath of relief that our ranching families have sought for so long. As frustrating as it may be, that day is still to come. I encourage you to put this all into perspective as you hear the prognosticators’ predictions on what will and won’t happen in Congress.
Will Rogers once said, “An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's.” I guess you can say the same about D.C. pundits and this lobbyist.