Capitol Alert

Will Congress raise the federal gas tax? California Republican could have a major say

The next chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will shape how the federal government regulates California’s dams and waterways.

He or she will oversee the federal programs that subsidize everything from efforts to help reduce the choking congestion between the Central Valley and Bay Area to the state’s ambitious and controversial high-speed rail project.

Most immediately, the next chair will face the politically charged decision of whether to raise the federal gas tax — and the price Californians pay the pump — to keep the nation’s highway maintenance fund from sinking into the red.

And for the first time in more than 20 years, a Californian is poised to take over this powerful post. That is, if he can just keep his job.

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock has only been in Congress since 2011, but a combination of GOP retirements, term limits and Denham’s own savvy alliance building have made him the favorite to assume the top slot on the committee in 2019, industry lobbyists and congressional aides agree. That assumes, however, two election outcomes this November that are very much in doubt: that Republicans keep their majority in the House of Representatives and that Denham, himself, keeps his 10th District seat.

Denham narrowly won reelection in 2016, even as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won his Modesto-area district in the presidential race. A handful of well-funded Democrats are now vying for the chance to take on Denham this November. And political handicappers rank him among the most vulnerable Republicans in 2018.

That hasn’t stopped Denham from coalescing support from fellow Republicans in the race for the party’s top spot on the committee, which the House GOP caucus will vote on after the November election. His primary rival is Missouri Rep. Sam Graves.

Denham is seen as having the clear edge thanks not only to his policy work on the committee but his personal connections to other members.

Last fall, Denham joined the current committee chairman, Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, and Republican Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina to tour the Port of Charleston and other infrastructure projects in South Carolina that are a priority for Sanford. In discussing his pursuit of more port money with McClatchy, Sanford specifically mentioned Denham as someone who had seen the port up close, and described the California lawmaker as a potential successor to Shuster who could be helpful. That kind of hands-on outreach, combined with Denham’s personable nature, has earned him the backing of colleagues over the more reserved Graves.

Denham has another major advantage: his close ties to fellow Central Valley Rep. Kevin McCarthy. As the second ranking Republican in the House, McCarthy has one of the largest vote shares on the party’s steering committee, which in turn chooses the members to lead each House committee. McCarthy and Denham have been friends since they both served in the California Legislature. McCarthy, the Republican House leader, is now the leading candidate to succeed Speaker Paul Ryan when Ryan retires at the end of the year, potentially giving him even more clout.

Denham has also been wooing transportation and construction interests that could be influential in the chairman’s race. And they, in turn, have been showering Denham with campaign funds for what promises to be a hard-fought race for re-election. According to data from the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics, Denham has received more donations from the trucking industry than any other House member thus far in the 2018 election cycle. And he ranks number two in the House in donations from both railroads and air transport companies, which includes airlines as well as airplane manufacturers and freight services.

On Thursday, the four-term congressman delivered on one of the trucking industry's top priorities. The House narrowly passed the so-called "Denham amendment," which would override a California law requiring frequent rest and meal breaks for long-haul truckers. It's been vociferously opposed by the Teamsters union and Democratic leaders.

Notably, Denham also has avoided taking a position on raising gas taxes to pay for highway and road repairs, as California did when it passed SB 1 in 2017. As the state’s legislative fight underscored, the issue is a tricky one for Republicans, splitting traditional constituencies like the Chamber of Commerce, construction industry, and transportation sector — who supported the measure — from anti-tax conservatives. McCarthy and many of Denham’s other GOP colleagues from California are now funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign to repeal the law.

Denham, however, has been conspicuously absent from that effort. And he has acknowledged in private meetings that the law could help the state nab more federal funds under President Trump’s proposed infrastructure investment plan.

“I think he’s taking a measured approach at looking at funding sources” for infrastructure, said Peter Tateishi, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of California, which supported the state's gas tax increase. Tateishi said he’d recently met with Denham in the congressman’s Modesto office to discuss the organization’s infrastructure priorities. “He was asking how our projects could benefit from SB 1,” Tateishi said.

Denham's office declined repeated requests for comment on the gas tax and other infrastructure issues.

But he can’t duck the question for much longer. The federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to become insolvent by the end of 2020, and the next Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair will be integral in determining how Congress responds. Increasing the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in over two decades, is the most straightforward solution, at least from a policy standpoint. The politics are much trickier, particularly as gas prices continue to rise in California and elsewhere.

The problem for Denham is that promising to repeal the gas tax increase may be one of the few ways to mobilize conservatives in an election year when most of the energy is with the Democrats. And he has zero chance of being the Transportation Committee chairman next year if voters oust him from Congress this fall.

Emma Dumain contributed to this story

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