Congress has passed a measure that will fund transportation projects through 2014 while maintaining the current interest rate on student loans, and appropriate money to subsidize national flood insurance.
“This massive bill spends too much money, will continue taxpayer bailouts for highway spending, and keeps subsidies that have contributed directly to skyrocketing tuition rates,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said.
Despite the backlash from such core conservative groups, the bill’s supporters expressed confidence. “We got a pretty good reception in conference this morning,” Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania said after House Republicans met on the bill.
After three months of haggling, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on the package Wednesday. It includes a two-year, $100 billion spending plan for highway and mass transit construction and repairs, $6 billion to prevent rates on new student loans after June 30 from doubling, and a five-year renewal of federal flood insurance subsidies.
The bill gives states more flexibility over how they spend federal highway aid, consolidates transportation programs and shortens environmental delays to get highway projects built faster. It also expands a loan guarantee program aimed at increasing private investment in infrastructure projects.
Democrats and Republicans each gave way on issues important to their political constituencies, but both sides also scored victories. Republicans sacrificed proposals to force a go-ahead with the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline in the Midwest and to prevent the Obama administration from regulating coal ash as a hazardous toxin. Democrats gave ground on environmental protections blamed for stalling some road projects and safety, biking and pedestrian programs.
About $121 billion of the $127 billion measure is for highway funds. You can be sure that a lot of that spending is pork, with whatever this year’s version of a “bridge to nowhere” taking funding from more vital and pressing projects. Even with no earmarks, transportation spending is largely a result of horse trading, with members selling their vote for access to the cookie jar. It’s no way to fund highway projects but congress appears reluctant to reform it.
An additional $6.7 billion will go to keeping the student loan interest rate at 3-4% rather than see it double to 6.8%. And subsidies for flood insurance were also in the package.