March 12, 2015

This week’s ETW Document of the Week again revisits the Nixon Administration. In October 1972, House and Senate negotiations over the biannual highway bill were breaking down over the issue of whether or not the Highway Trust Fund should be opened up to fund mass transit capital expenses in urban areas instead of urban freeways. (The White House and the Senate supported opening up the Trust Fund for transit, but the House opposed it.) The conferees were also dealing with the issue of whether the federal government should fund operating subsidies for mass transit (vehemently opposed by the White House.)

On Saturday, October 14, the House and Senate conferees were so far apart that they tentatively agreed to file a conference report that said only that “the conferees have met and have been unable to agree.” The intended adjournment date for the Congress was fast approaching.

This October 16 memo from the White House Deputy Budget Director to his boss (OMB Director Cap Weinberger) and to Nixon domestic policy staffers Ken Cole and Bud Krogh gives an insider view of the House-Senate negotiations and then suggests a novel strategy: “I recommend that we settle for no bill at all.” The memo analyzes which states would run out of highway contract authority first if new authorizations were not enacted but then concludes that “the pain caused by the program consequences appears less than the potential pain of taking any initiative to reopen the conference and risk getting a bad bill.”

House and Senate negotiators did make one last attempt to file a conference report on a truncated bill and bring it to the House floor on Wednesday, October 18, but the report was not brought to the floor until after what members had been told was the last vote of the year, so many members had left town. House Democratic leaders tried to pass the conference report by voice vote, but Rep. John T. Myers (R-IN) demanded a quorum call, which revealed that only 112 of the 435 Members of the House were present. Under House rules, once a lack of a quorum is established by a quorum call, the only motion in order is a motion to adjourn, so the 92nd Congress adjourned without enacting a highway bill on schedule.

The 93rd Congress was able to enact a highway bill by August 1973, which did for the first time allow Highway Trust Fund dollars to be used for mass transit.