WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Tuesday he would demonstrate his commitment to a more inclusive style of legislating by allowing unlimited amendments on an important highway bill that will be debated on the House floor this week.
In his first news conference as speaker, Ryan, addressing the complaints of some Republican hard-liners, pledged to take steps to empower individual lawmakers, and a more freewheeling and open amendment process has been among their demands. But with nearly 300 amendments filed on the highway bill, freewheeling could easily turn unwieldy.
“We came together as a conference and unified and agreed to proceed together with a vision,” Ryan said at the news conference in the lobby of the Republican National Committee headquarters.
“This week, you will see the highway bill is a good place to start,” Ryan said. “We’re opening up the process. We’re allowing members to participate in a way that the founders intended. And we’re advancing an issue that is a big priority to the hard-working taxpayers of this country, fixing our roads and our bridges, improving our transportation infrastructure.”
Fittingly enough, however, Ryan’s big legislative test will be to preside over a debate that is actually less a fight about transportation infrastructure than a battle over tax policy, which has been his main area of interest in Congress.
The problem is relatively simple: Virtually everyone agrees on the need to maintain the nation’s roads, but there is fierce disagreement over how to come up with the money to pay for it.
The Highway Trust Fund is financed by a tax on gasoline, currently set at 18.3 cents per gallon. The tax, however, was never indexed for inflation, and that, combined with greater fuel economy of modern cars, has left the highway fund woefully short of cash — by more than $53 billion since 2008.
Congress has made up the difference in recent years using general funds, but to make matters even tougher, existing law calls for the gas tax to be cut next year to 4.3 cents per gallon. Ryan, who before becoming speaker was chairman of the powerful, tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has long opposed any increase in the gas tax, a position shared by many of his fellow Republicans.
The stalemate on how to finance the trust fund led lawmakers to draw up a highway bill that includes six years of policy prescriptions — generally regarded as an optimum length of time for states to plan roadwork and other projects — but there is enough money to cover only three years’ worth of the measure.
That created an awkward situation in which Ryan and Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, contradicted each other.
“This six-year bill creates more certainty for folks out there that are doing the work on our roads and infrastructure around the country,” Shuster said.
But when Ryan was pressed on the three years of financing, he said: “Well, it’s a three-year bill that has three years of financing. And if we can come up with more financing down the road, we can add more years to the bill.”
Shuster said some 280 amendments had already been filed, setting the stage for a lengthy floor debate that could last three days or more.
“I just want to thank the leadership team, especially Speaker Ryan, for opening up the process,” Shuster said. “There’s nothing more exciting than to be the first batter up in the batter’s box to face a new pitcher.”