By Michael O'Leary of Portland, Oregon. Michael is a climate and fuels consultant with the National Wildlife Federation. Previously, he contributed "Ron Wyden fights for consumers & environment on Keystone XL".
Congressional conference committees are one of the most fascinating things that happen behind closed doors in our nation’s Capitol, where eleventh-hour horse-trading is relied upon to reconcile the differences among House and Senate versions of a bill on its way to the President’s desk. It is, as they say, like making sausage.
Take the current transportation bill negotiations, for example.
There’s a lot at stake in this bill for Oregonians in particular. The USDOT estimates that more than 20,000 jobs could be created by the bipartisan Senate version of the bill.
Plus there are two riders already tacked on to both the House and Senate versions of the bill that will bring enormous local benefits: Over a million dollars of funding for Oregon parks and habitat restoration is at stake with the Land Water Conservation Fund renewal, as is over $100 million for cash-strapped school districts here in Oregon thanks to Representative Peter DeFazio’s (D-OR) Secure Rural Schools Act.
All together, the bipartisan version of the bill in the Senate creates the kind of political momentum that gets Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to come around to Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) way of thinking.
So why then is Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) comparing the transportation bill’s contentiousness to the funding fights over Planned Parenthood and why is Rep. DeFazio referring to the bill’s pathway out of the House as “Dysfunction Junction?”)
And why, after more than a month of the Conference Committee, are insiders now preparing for negotiations to collapse with only faint hopes for late passage during the lame duck session after the November election?
At the top of the list of core disagreements are differences over how the bill will be paid for, as are the House GOP’s anti-environmental riders, including a proposal to deregulate coal-ash and another to push the KeystoneXL tarsands oil export pipeline through before customary environmental reviews are complete.
So far the Senate and the Obama administration are holding firm to their opposition to such provisions despite the House’s insistence on adding these poison pills to the bill.
Senator Ron Wyden says:
“Extracting oil from tar sands is one of the most resource intensive and environmentally damaging oil extraction processes available. The Keystone Pipeline will only increase the amount of oil that comes from this process and increase the cost of gasoline here in the U.S. This is an economically and environmentally dubious project which is why I opposed fast tracking it in the Senate bill and oppose House efforts to include it in the conference committee.”
Some say that killing the transportation bill is not the aim of conservative campaigners, and that they simply want to keep these stories alive as long as possible to use the KeystoneXL as a delivery vehicle for their attack ads in swing states to mobilize their base and lure in swing voters.
The theory there is that since the Republican rhetoric on the KeystoneXL pipeline suggests that it would offer relief for America’s gas price woes, which patently ignores the fact that the KeystoneXL oil is already pre-leased for overseas export so their policy position ought to be negotiable.
By rule the Conference Committee must conclude its work on the bill before June 30th.
Will the transportation bill become a law? It depends on how Congress likes its sausage.