The Transportation Bill Finally Passes

Congress finally approved a Transportation Authorization Bill on Thursday, 3 December 2015. The Bill authorizes $305 Billion dollars over a five year period. The $305 Billion would come mostly from the gasoline tax (which has not been raised since 1993) and partly from other “gimmicks” such as raiding the Federal Reserve’s reserve fund. The Bill also authorizes $10 Billion for Amtrak, and it allows Amtrak to pour the profits from the popular Acela Northeast Corridor route back into infrastructure improvements in the corridor (which are very badly needed). The bill also revives the Export-Import Bank and includes a host of other provisions for urban rail transportation and railroad oil tank car safety standards supported by the American Association of Railroads.

Below is the final passage vote in the House. The vote was 350-65 with the 65 “Nays” coming primarily from Conservative Republicans. Nonetheless, the vote has a respectable PRE of 0.32.

Click image to enlarge

In the Senate the bill passed 83-16 (Sanders (I-DE)) did not vote. Here two Democrats, Warren (D-MA) and Carper (D-DE) voted “Nay” along with 14 mostly Conservative Republicans. Note that the cutting line could be moved slightly to the left and reduce the number of errors from 10 to 7. However, CS DW-NOMINATE is a probabilistic model so that moving the cutting line slightly to the left would result in all the probabilities of the “Yea” voters to become slightly smaller. Optimal Classification would position the cutting line to maximize the correct classification because it is not a probabilistic procedure.

Click image to enlarge

Speaker Boehner Exits Stage Right

Speaker Boehner kept his promise to make the life of his successor a bit easier by brokering a compromise budget bill that extends the Debt Ceiling until March 2017 and lifts the sequester caps to allow an addition $80 billion in spending on Defense and domestic programs. Although the bill is loaded with many “Christmas Tree Decorations” it should ensure that there is no government shutdown or a major fiscal crisis before the 2016 Presidential Election.

Below we use our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE Scores to show the budget votes in the House and Senate. In both chambers the fit in terms of Aggregate Proportional Reduction in Error (APRE) is reasonably good. Note that the vote splits the Republican Party in each Chamber:

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

After the passage of the Budget “Christmas Tree” bill the House then elected Paul Ryan as Speaker. In the vote below 235 Yeas are shown when the actual was 236 Yeas. Speaker Boehner voted for Ryan as his replacement but he had too few votes to be scaled so he does not appear in the count. The 187 vote for Nancy Pelosi consist of 184 votes for her and one vote each for Colin Powell, Cooper (D-TN), and
Lewis (D-GA). The Green “R”s are the die-hard members of the House Freedom Caucus who voted for Webster (R-FL).

Click image to enlarge

Finally, some good news. Congress extended the deadline for Positive Train Control until the end of 2018 and President Obama signed the extension. This happened just in time (literally) as the Railroads were going to have to begin to curtail service within a few weeks. Now there will be no impact on the economy and we can all have a very Happy and Merry Holiday Season Everyone!

Defense Authorization, the Sequester, and Guantanamo

This week the Senate passed the Defense Authorization Bill by a vote of 70 – 27. The bill earlier passed the House by a vote of 270 -156. Normally the Military Authorization bill is not a serious bone of contention between the parties and Congress versus the President. This time may be different. The bill contains a number of provisions that in less polarized times would be very popular: a pay raise for military personnel, reforms to the weapons acquisition systems, and better protections for sexual assault victims. But the bill also increases the budget by $38 billion by placing those funds in “overseas contingency funds”. These contingency funds are not counted against the budget caps thereby avoiding the Sequester limits. President Obama has threatened a veto over this because he wants the caps lifted on domestic spending as well. Complicating matters further, President Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison. But the Defense Authorization bill has a rider that
prohibits the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Prison and the transfer of the detainees to the United States homeland.

Below we show, using our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE scores, the vote in the Senate on the Defense Authorization bill:

Click image to enlarge

The two Republicans who voted No are Cruz (R-TX) and Paul (R-TX) both of who are running for President.

Even though 70 votes in the Senate is enough to override a veto not all of the Senate Democrats will vote to override and President Obama’s veto will be sustained.

The votes do not exist in the House to override a veto in any event. Although the bill passed in the House by a vote of 270 – 156 there are not enough Democrats who will vote with the Republicans to override the President.

Click image to enlarge

So, yet again, we have yet another funding “crisis” looming. The temporary Continuing Resolution runs out on December 11. With the turmoil within the Republican Caucus things could get very ugly within weeks.

In addition, the doomsday clock continues to tick down: PTC Countdown Clock.

Funding the Government Through December 11 (and updates on previous posts)

Below we show, using our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE scores, the votes on the Continuing Resolution to continue funding for the Federal Government through December 11. Sizable blocs in the House and Senate Republican Parties voted against the Continuing Resolution even though it only runs to December 11. In the House, 91 Republicans voted for the CR whereas 151 voted against:

Click image to enlarge

In the Senate the Republicans split 32 for the CR with 20 against it (Rubio and Graham did not vote):

Click image to enlarge

Although a shutdown of the Federal Government is temporarily averted it will be difficult for the Republicans to pass a permanent spending bill before December. Indeed, President Obama announced that he will not sign another short term measure. Adding to the crisis is the fact that the Debt Ceiling must be raised by November 5th. President Obama will not negotiate over raising the Debt Ceiling. Complicating matters even further the House voted to increase the Defense Budget beyond the Sequester Deal caps. President Obama will veto the Defense bill if the Sequester caps are not lifted on domestic spending as well. This vote is shown below:

Click image to enlarge

Note that on all three votes shown above the second dimension plays a role. Although Congress is nearly one-dimensional liberal-conservative, enough stress has built up to clearly divide the Republican Party on many issues. Last week we discussed the race to replace Speaker Boehner. Kevin McCarthy seemed to be a sure bet until is comments about the Benghazi Select Committee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This boneheaded unforced error has lead to speculation that Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) might run against McCarthy (Chaffetz is located at 0.667 while McCarthy is located at 0.459).

Also, not only is there a threat that the Federal Government could shut down, as we discussed in August the entire railroad system could shut down if Congress does not deal with the problem of Positive Train Control. The Railroad industry is in a state of alarm over this with The Association of American Railroads prominently displaying a countdown clock until an industry shutdown. As we noted in that post, this would be far more serious than a Federal Government shutdown and could be economically catastrophic.

The general theme running through our post today is Congressional dysfunction with no end in sight.

Railroads and the Deadlocked Transportation Act

Just before the House and Senate left for an August recess, they managed to pass a three month patch so that the government could continue to fund mass transit and highway projects. Funding highway projects used to be very popular and bipartisan. Lots of people were employed laying Rebar and pouring concrete and at one time the Transportation bill was very popular.

The current systems was set up under President Eisenhower in 1956. He supported a nationwide highway system that would allow the rapid movement of defense forces around the continental United States. The result was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. Below is the key procedural vote in the Senate (having to do with labor issues). The Senate then went on to pass the bill by voice vote.

Click image to enlarge

The 1956 Act set up the Highway Trust Fund that received money from a federal fuel tax. These funds were intended for the construction of highways. The original gas tax was $0.03 per gallon and that increased in increments over the years to $0.184 per gallon. A separate trust fund was established to fund mass transit projects.

The problem that Congress is now stuck with is the fact that cars and trucks are now more fuel efficient so that less money is flowing into the Trust Fund at the same time as the interstate system, roads, and bridges are deteriorating. Congress, especially Republicans, is loath to increase gasoline taxes. Instead they have used various budget gimmicks to transfer general revenue into the fund which only prolongs the crisis.

If this were not bad enough, the Senate bill combines the Transportation bill with the renewal of the Export-Import bank which many Republicans oppose as crony capitalism. Given these conflicting objectives it is no surprise that the 65-34 vote in the Senate shown below has no ideological structure whatsoever. Both parties are split internally over the bill which will make things all the more difficult to reach some sort of deal with the House in September.

Click image to enlarge

But inside this bill is a Time Bomb that if it goes off could quite literally shut down the US economy. That Time Bomb is Positive Train Control (PTC) which is supposed to be in place on the railroads nationwide by the end of 2015. In effect PTC would be a “fail-safe” system that would prevent accidents such as the 12 September 2008 collision of a Metrolink (Los Angeles system) commuter train with a Union Pacific freight train head-on while the Metrolink engineer was busy texting. Twenty-five people were killed and it caused Congress to pass a bill in October 2008 mandating PTC on the entire nationwide railroad system.

Congress appropriated no funds for the railroads to build this system even though the major freight railroads — BNSF, UP, CSX, NS — run no passenger trains and serious wrecks of freight trains are relatively rare. PTC requires a complex system of computers and wireless radio control so that engines can be remotely controlled. None of the major freight railroads have finished building this system (for example, Congress did not order the FCC to release spectrum on an emergency basis to the railroads!).

In the Transportation Act passed by the Senate there is a three year delay until 31 December 2018 to give time for the major railroads to implement PTC. A number of members of Congress such as Chuck Schumer (D-NY) oppose any delay regardless of the consequences. Unless the delay is passed, in January the freight railroads will have to decide to stop hauling toxic inhalation materials and close their tracks to commuter trains. This drastic step would put them in compliance with PTC but would violate the basic law that the Railroads are common carriers (see Trains magazine, October 2015, page 6 for a discussion). This would set off a major national crisis. Like it or not hazardous materials such as Chlorine and Sulfuric Acid have to transported by rail. They have to move or major industries will grind to a halt. Ditto the commuter rail. If commuter trains are stopped from using the freight rail lines massive traffic jams will be the result.

This whole sorry spectacle is yet another sign of how dysfunctional Congress has become.