WASHINGTON -- The Senate may have just unveiled a multiyear highway bill 10 days before construction on the nation’s transportation infrastructure is set to grind to a halt, but a congressional traffic jam is building over the bill's Social Security cut.
The bill may be a product of rare bipartisanship between between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), but it’s not winning over many Democrats in the Senate, let alone the House, where it will need to find support as well.
To pay for the ailing Highway Trust Fund for three years, the bill scrapes together about $45 billion in fresh dough, pulling from a variety of pots. The fund, which on average accounts for over half of the money most states pour into their transit systems, gets a sizable chunk of its funding from the federal gasoline tax, which hasn’t been touched since the 1990s. But lawmakers have decided against increasing the gas tax, which has held steady at 18.4 cents per gallon. Since the amount hasn't risen with inflation, or taken into account cars' increased fuel efficiency, its real value has eroded.
“Most people are willing to pay a user fee to use our highways,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), referring to a higher gas tax. “Let’s be honest with the American people, it’s not free.”
Instead of a gas tax, senators went looking for loose change in the couch cushions and came up with the money by cobbling together 16 separate provisions, most of which are unrelated to transportation. One provision raises $2.3 billion by requiring the federal government to use private debt collectors to help collect taxes owed to the government. Another would retrieve $1.7 billion in unspent funds from a Treasury Department program that was supposed to help homeowners, but mostly didn't. Yet another program offsets $16.3 billion by reducing a Federal Reserve bank subsidy.
One proposal causing a stir among Senate and House Democrats, in particular, targets Social Security. The provision saves billion by eliminating retirement or disability benefits for certain recipients with outstanding felony warrants. According to a summary, the measure cuts off benefits to people who are "subjects of a felony arrest warrant and for whom the state has given notice that they intend to pursue the warrant."
A standalone version of the warrant provision introduced earlier this year by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) would have saved $4.8 billion. The highway bill version says it would allow the commissioner of Social Security to continue payments to people with felony warrants as long as there's "good cause." Boxer said Tuesday that the provision had been "cut back to protect the vulnerable people so I feel good about it."
But the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities said in a statement that it hasn't been cut back enough, since "the estimated savings of $2.3 billion over 10 years makes it clear that the proposal means cutting off all Social Security and SSI benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans."
Boxer may be alone on this one. So far, a handful of Senate Democrats have told The Huffington Post they are concerned about the Social Security offset. Some are waiting to hear what Boxer and the rest of the caucus have to say after a Wednesday caucus meeting that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called specifically to talk about the highway bill that caught a number of Democrats off guard on Tuesday.
“It's critical that we pass a long-term highway bill, but we shouldn't pay for it by raiding the Social Security trust fund or taking away resources for homeowners, community banks, and local communities in the aftermath of the housing crisis,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in an emailed statement.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters on Wednesday that he has several objections to the offsets included in the bill, calling them "unacceptable" and hinting he may vote against the package if it reaches the floor.
On the House side, Becerra railed against the provision. The House passed its own highway bill last week, which would extend funding for five months, and require another fix by Dec. 18. But with the Senate moving in a different direction, the House will either have to vote on the upper chamber’s fix, or go to conference over the two bills.
“How dare you take anything from Social Security from people who worked hard to get their retirement, their disability, or in case they die, survivor benefit for their families, simply because you’re not willing to come up with the right way to pay for our roads and bridges,” said Becerra. “I’ll be darned if I’m going to let someone take money that’s for Social Security.”
If the House and Senate fail to reconcile their two bills -- a very real possibility, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the Senate’s bill “won’t fly” -- the fund will expire on July 31. Starting Aug. 1, construction on roads, bridges and highways will take a hit, and the Federal Highway Administration will need to shutter its doors and furlough employees. The Federal Highway Administration will stop helping states with highway projects, and a backlog of project applications will build up. States have already starting pulling critical large-scale projects, such as highway intersection expansions to improve traffic flow for commuters, and programs responsible for patching roads after harsh winters, that are worth millions. By one estimate from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the highways are so jammed they cost the U.S. $101 billion in wasted time and fuel per year.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) called the offsets in the Senate bill “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”
“Step up to the plate, man up,” Becerra added.
It’s not the first time Congress has tried to curtail Social Security benefits to "fugitive felons." A similar provision proposed in 2005 eventually cut benefits to 200,000 disabled and retired people before lawsuits forced the Social Security Administration to repay $500 million to 80,000 people whose benefits had been wrongfully terminated.
Senators apparently already dropped one Social Security provision that would have raised a few billion dollars by preventing Social Security Disability Insurance recipients from simultaneously collecting unemployment insurance (the disability program allows recipients to earn money during trial work periods, and only earnings above a certain level can jeopardize disability benefits). Republicans have long wanted to incorporate the "double dipping ban" in a variety of bills, including a House GOP budget outline and an ill-fated unemployment insurance reauthorization from early in 2014, but the measure has once again failed to find a home.