On Highway Bill, Congress Moves to the Right of Grover Norquist


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On Thursday, Congress ended a chapter of its latest manufactured crisis by addressing the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund just hours before the Department of Transportation would have been forced to cut funding for state and local projects by 28 percent, sidelining hundreds of thousands of workers.

Approved Thursday, the measure extends funding through May. The House passed it after Republicans rejected tax compliance provisions in the bill first approved by the Senate — provisions so innocuous that they were even blessed by the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.

Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, is famous for his so-called “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which by signing politicians promise never to raise income taxes no matter how apocalyptic the consequences. But Norquist apparently recognized that revenue provisions in the Senate’s bill were compliance measures, meaning they would not increase taxes owed by anyone but only ensure people would pay what they owe. Nonetheless, key Republicans in the House of Representatives (who are usually quick to please Norquist) insisted that they were in no mood to “give them [the IRS] more tools to harass taxpayers.” This meant that the Senate was ultimately forced to approve the House version of the bill, which did not include the revenue provisions.

How Another Long Foreseen Problem Became a Washington Nail-Biter

How to cover the costs and how long of an extension to provide were just two of the issues that allowed a totally foreseen and easily fixed problem to become another artificial crisis.

The trust fund that finances transportation projects was set to run out, and the Department of Transportation planned to cut funding to state and local governments for these projects by 28 percent starting Friday. Nothing about this was unforeseen. The trust fund has an estimated shortfall of $170 billion over the coming decade because it relies mainly on the 18.4 cent gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax, which have remained the same since 1993.

A September 2013 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that if the nation’s federal gas tax had been maintained at the same inflation-adjusted level since 1993, the trust fund would have enjoyed more than $200 billion in additional revenues, including $19 billion in 2013.

Congress ignored this blindingly obvious solution and instead bickered about a short-term measure that would continue funding just for a number of months to provide lawmakers with more time. How could Congress possibly need more time to address a problem everyone has known about for years? That has to do with politics, of course. For example, some lawmakers wanted to provide funding until right after the election, which is when politicians often make politically difficult choices, while some Republicans preferred to extend the trust fund until next year with the expectation that their party would control the Senate and thus the details of a long-term fix.

Taking the latter approach, the House of Representatives had already approved a bill to address the funding gap through May, with an $11 billion cost that would be offset by changes in customs fees and in the timing of pension payments (and thus the tax deductions that are taken for them by employers).

The Senate, on July 30 amended that bill to provide funding only through December and to rely partly on the tax compliance provisions that Senator Wyden, chairman of the Finance Committee, had included in his own bill. In a statement on his bill, Wyden said that his revenue provisions

“… are not tax increases. In fact, the Finance Committee even received a letter from Grover Norquist and the group Americans for Tax Reform saying so. Mr. Norquist is not soft on the question of tax increases, and he has indicated that these provisions are not tax hikes. What these provisions do is crack down on tax cheats and ensure that mortgage lenders provide homeowners with more tax information than they are usually getting today.”

One of the revenue measures would require more reporting related to mortgage interest deductions, another would alter the statute of limitations for overstatements of investment costs, while other provisions would increase certain penalties. Altogether, the provisions would have raised $4.3 billion, which seems like a small sum compared to the drama that has surrounded this debate.

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