In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) disapproves of the current debate on the transportation bill that is being considered. He feels that Congress must at the very least be fiscally responsible in dealing with the transportation bill, seeing it as a critical test of lawmakers' ability to budget and tackle our larger fiscal issues.
The Highway Trust Fund in the past has been financed through revenues from fuel excise taxes, but in recent years outlays have exceeded revenues. Congress has transferred $34.5 billion of general revenue to the trust fund three times since 2008. With the current authorization for surface transportation expiring March 31, both chambers have looked to put in place a longer-term authorization.
Corker criticizes the Senate bill for not solving the trust fund's structural financing issues. Specifically, he said:
The bill before the Senate spends more than we can afford by financing two years’ worth of costs over as many as 10 years. In two years, the trust fund will still be insolvent, requiring us to fill the gap with billions more to support even current funding levels. And as the years go by, that gap will continue to grow, digging the hole even deeper.
Corker identifies two fiscally responsible solutions that could be implemented in the reauthorization bill. First, Congress could reduce the amount of spending in the transportation bill to the levels that the Highway Trust Fund receives in taxes. Second, Congress could offset the shortfalls in the transportation budget--and the subsequent general revenue transfers to cover the shortfall--through reductions in other programs. Incidentally, Corker has offered both of these suggestions as amendments to the Senate bill.
In addition to Corker’s solutions, there is a third option: finding additional sources of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund in addition to the fuel taxes, or raising existing taxes (and possibly indexing their rates to inflation). Any of these three would solve the trust fund's financing issues without resorting to covering a few years of costs with ten years of offsets. Also, patching up the Highway Trust Fund would demonstrate at least a small commitment to fiscal responsibility at a time when a lot of it must be counted on. As he concludes:
If we fail this small test, how will we ever pass a sweeping agreement to cut the deficit and avoid what Erskine Bowles called “the most predictable economic crisis in history”?