Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) Opening Statement: Highway Bill Conference Committee Meeting
Thank you Madam Chair.
I don’t think anyone in this room will contradict me when I say we all want to conclude this conference committee as quickly as possible, and in a way that puts our transportation programs on a stable and predictable footing and that ensures a strong voice for local communities in the transportation decision-making process.
Those of us who have spent the last several years working on tax extenders, and have seen the provisions that expired last year still languishing, know firsthand that living off a series of short-term extensions reduces our ability to think long-term, undercuts sound policymaking, and undermines the certainty our economy needs.
I am concerned that the Senate passed transportation bill, and particularly the Finance title, does not put us on a sustainable and predictable path. The Finance title practically amounts to a search under the couch cushions for loose change, and the approach taken to putting it together, as difficult as it was, will only become more difficult going forward.
At the Finance Committee markup on February 7, I laid out some basic principles, and I think they are worth drawing from now. Users of the highway trust fund ought to pay for building and maintenance. More simply, the user-pays principal ought to be maintained. This also entails more discipline on the spending side than currently exists so that users of a given program do not also pay for other fashionable programs they do not use.
Additionally, revenues and spending should line up on a year-by-year basis. I understand that we are so off-track that implementing this principle may take some time, but before we start writing checks we should have some understanding of whether those checks will clear. This point is linked with the user-pays principle, and along with it, ensures that the taxpayer is an actual partner in setting our national transportation priorities, rather than just a pack animal simply carrying a burden placed upon it by others.
When constitutionally legitimate federal policies and projects are considered, it is not enough to ask, Is this a good idea?
We also need to ask, Is this such a good idea that we are willing to help pay for it? And if so, how will we pay for it?
Finally, given that the Finance Committee was instrumental in moving the revenue level of the trust fund up in 2005, we should preserve that level and reject any tax increases. As with our entire government, our transportation programs suffer from a spending problem and not a revenue problem.
There are many ways to reform spending, and in an amendment filed to the Finance Committee markup, I suggested repealing federal Davis-Bacon requirements. Even reforms short of repeal of these costly union handouts would allow us to do more with transportation dollars.
As the Finance title of the Senate bill was put together, I did notice resistance among many of my colleagues to any spending cuts whatsoever. We keep hearing how important this bill is for jobs. And there is a lot to that. However, if this bill is that important, it seems to me that it could be paid for by reducing spending elsewhere. When the government is paying to put shrimp on a treadmill, there are undoubtedly wasteful government programs that could be cut to finance highway priorities.
I also want to note my strong support for the Keystone XL Pipeline and stress how important it is to get that project built. This highway bill is touted as a jobs bill, and there is no question that Keystone would create jobs — good paying jobs. But in addition to that, it will promote stable energy resources from a friendly country that wants to do business with the United States. We need to be doing more to develop our own energy resources.
Thank you to the leadership of this conference committee for the opportunity to make a statement. In closing, I want to read a quote from a report of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs from August 10, 1964. This report concerns the creation of a fund that receives transfers from the Highway Trust Fund. This report in part reads “…this transfer from the highway trust fund will have no delaying affect whatsoever in completing the highway program. Other revenues are exceeding expectations and even with the proposed transfer, the highway trust fund will conclude in 1973, with a surplus of over $300 million.”
We look at this statement today and know that events did not transpire as our predecessors from nearly 50 years ago expected. Hopefully our colleagues in 50 years will view the deliberations of this conference in a different light.