Congress, after a temporary detour, approved a stopgap plan Thursday to fund transportation projects through next May, sending the measure to President Obama.
Acting in the final days of its session before lawmakers break for a five-week summer recess, the Senate approved a House measure 81-13 that relies on a controversial budgetary maneuver to provide $10.8 billion to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which was on track to run out of money in less than a month.
The resolution of the funding crisis satisfied few in either party despite the bipartisan votes. Both sides agreed to kick the matter down the road, just not on how far.
An earlier Senate bill approved Tuesday would have provided only enough money to keep the fund solvent through December. Proponents of the plan argued that lawmakers were more likely to find consensus on a longer-term solution to keep the trust fund solvent in that so-called lame duck session, than they would be next spring.
The Highway Trust Fund had been designed as a self-sufficient account to help fund road and mass transit projects in partnership with the states. But its primary funding source, a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, hasn’t been raised since 1993, which combined with increased fuel efficiency and a recent dip in automobile travel has led to shortfalls.
The Congressional Budget Office projects an average annual shortfall of about $15 billion through 2020, and there has been little consensus among lawmakers about how to make up the gap.
The temporary plan approved Thursday allows companies to defer payments to employee pension funds, thereby increasing taxable profits in the short term. But critics of the so-called “pension smoothing” say it is a gimmick that does not actually generate additional revenue over time, since the pension plans eventually need to recoup the dollars.
“What we wanted to do was to take care of this problem this year, in this Congress, on our watch. Not kick the can down the road,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Thursday.
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