In what may be the most remarkable piece of legislation to come out of Washington yesterday, the House and Senate finally came together and approved a major transportation infrastructure bill. President Obama signed it into law. Though there is no answer as to why this particular piece of legislation did not bog down in hyper-partisan delay, the fact that it did shows that when lawmakers want to do something they can.
The $305 billion highway funding bill is $100 billion less than the president had originally requested from Congress. However, he did indicate it is an “important first step in the right direction,” calling the new law “a common sense compromise.” Obama stated he would seek further increases in transportation funding to meet national needs and provide jobs; the Associated Press said in a wire service story last night.
The new law, the first long-term transportation bill passed since 2009 when hyper-partisanship overtook Washington, encasing it in fetters. Those fetters eventually resulted not only in blame-throwing but also a government shutdown that lasted nearly two weeks. Since 2012, the state of affairs on Capitol Hill has hardly been conducive to compromise, as both sides – Democrat and Republican – sought the advantage on every issue. Perhaps, with the passage of this bill the ice jam has finally been broken so that the capital can get back to the business of governing.
The new law certainly is a step in the right direction. Called an omnibus finance act, it is more like a suitcase that not only addresses the country’s infrastructure needs but also attaches extraneous outside riders on it. For example, the law includes a revival of the Export-Import Bank, a measure labeled blatant corporate welfare, to other more transportation-oriented matters such as a transportation study of Las Vegas. The fact that the bill was a compromise is the key to possibly paving the way to a more productive future.
With that said, the bill does contain some important points. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) received greater regulatory clout because the maximum penalty that the agency can level has tripled to $105 million. And, the agency defect investigation branch was given a badly needed funding increase to $30 million. However, the increase was predicated on NHTSA implementing the recommendations made by the Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG). The IG slammed the regulatory agency’s policies, procedures and everything in between as it recommended changes in the way NHTSA does business. NHTSA vowed to comply by the end of June.
In other matters, the new law:
- Mandates that all open recalls on a vehicle be resolved before a car can be rented.
- Allows whistleblowers to benefit if their information results in specific actions with up to 30 percent of penalties.
- Mandates that automakers maintain a recall database for 10 years, instead of the current five.
- Mandates new rules relating to post-bankruptcy recall repairs.
The new law almost immediately drew criticism for some of the assumptions used for funding. For example, there is a $70 billion transfer from the Federal Reserve to the general fund that, observers say, is just a bookkeeping trick as the money is already in the budget and remains there. Further, observers pointed out that long-term funding mechanisms for some other pieces of the new law don’t exist. Instead, it may be business as usual as these areas will have to be funded yearly.