Transportation Committee Federal Update
November 16, 2010

Steve Hewitt
Ewing-Hewitt Alliance
Federal Transportation Consultant Services

Federal Transportation Consultant Services

The mid-term election results have clearly had an impact on the makeup of Congress, and will most certainly affect pending transportation legislation in the coming months. Today I want to provide you with a brief overview of the make-up of Congress' key Committees of jurisdiction, post election, and provide a snapshot of some of the key transportation policy and legislative issues facing the “old” Congress as it returns to session this week; as well as issues that will face the new Congress when it begins its work in January, 2011. I will also touch briefly on some thoughts on what you can do to keep transportation on the radar of the new Congress and help to ensure that the importance of investing in our transportation infrastructure is recognized.

The new Congress will tend to be more conservative in its approach to federal spending and will be hard pressed to increase taxes and/or to increase expenditure in this time of fiscal crisis. They will need to be reminded of the positive impact that a sound and safe infrastructure will have on the nation's economic well being and on its role in creating jobs, improving mobility, and enhancing the environment.

It will not be easy – it will be a major challenge – but we must be ever vigilant if we are to ensure that this nation has a safe, secure, efficient and reliable transportation system. A system that will provide optimum options for the traveling public and for those who deliver our goods and services; and one which will promote economic competitiveness in the global economy.

A Post Election Overview:

After more than forty years of service, as a staffer and rank-and-file member, James Oberstar, the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) and the Dean of the Minnesota congressional delegation, was defeated by political newcomer Chip Cravaack, a Republican, and former naval captain and airline pilot.

This was Oberstar's eighteenth campaign for re-election and it proved to be his last. He was not alone in his plight as other key leaders also lost their re-election bids. He joined Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) and Budget Committee Chair John Spratt (D-SC) as one member of three defeated committee chairmen, who together, represent the loss of 98 years of institutional knowledge.

It is also true that Oberstar was hardly the only House T&I Committee Democrat to lose his seat – in all; sixteen (possibly 17 – with Tim Bishop's fate still undetermined) Democrats on the Committee were defeated. One Republican, Joseph Cao of Louisiana, was defeated. It is not completely clear who will replace Oberstar as the head of the Committee's Democratic caucus. Next in the line of seniority is Representative Nick Rahall (WV). Mr. Rayhall, has recently announced his intentions to seek the top Democratic spot on the Committee, even though earlier indications were that he might prefer to remain as the top ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR) and Rep. Jerry Costello (IL) are said to be among those interested in the top slot among the Democrats.

In past efforts to authorize transportation legislation (ISTEA, TEA 21) Mr. Rahall was an advocate for a “needs based” program and had been an integral part of the “ISTEA Works” coalition of 19 states that was established during the ISTEA reauthorization effort in 1997-98.

The House: Key Committees of Jurisdiction:

The T&I Committee:

Departing Democrats: Oberstar (MN); Taylor (MS); Baird (WA), Arcuri, NY, Mitchell (AZ); Carney (PA); Hall (NY); Kagen (WI); Hare (IL); Boccieri (OH); Schauer (MI); Markey (CO); McMahon (NY); Perrielllo (VA); Titus (NV); and, Teague (NM); Bishop (NY)?

Departing Republicans: Ehlers (MI); Moran (KS); Brown (SC); Boozman (R); Diaz-Balart (FL); Fallin (OK); and, Cao (LA)

Congressman John Mica (R-FL) is expected to become the next Chairman of the T&I Committee in January. Mr. Mica has stated that, if named as the Chair of the Committee, his primary focus will be: “improving employment and expanding economic opportunities, doing more with less, cutting red tape and removing impediments to creating jobs…” He also emphasized that he advocates, "...speeding up the process by which infrastructure projects are approved, and freeing up any infrastructure funding that's been sitting idle”.

His legislative priorities will be, “passing a long–term federal highways and transit reauthorization, a long overdue Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization, a new water resources measure and a long-term Coast Guard reauthorization.”

Additionally, he has stated that he will focus on major initiatives to save taxpayer dollars.  These initiatives include: “better management and utilization of federal assets, including real property, and more efficient, cost effective passenger rail transportation, including a better directed high-speed rail program.

He is considered a supporter of high-speed rail, though he is not a fan of how the Obama Administration has disbursed the initial funding grants from the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program. In fact he has stated that, “The Administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow speed trains to nowhere.” On the positive side for NY and the Northeast, he has said that he wants to redirect the rail money to the Northeast Corridor (NEC) which he believes is the only one with enough population density to financially support high-speed rail service.

Mr. Mica has stated that he will not raise taxes to support an expanded passenger rail program rather he will support increased use of the RRIF loan program and Public, Private, Partnerships to grow the level of investment. Mr. Mica also believes that many of the approved projects will come in under bid because of the construction industry's desire for work.

Going forward, New York elected five (possibly six) new members of Congress. Every effort should be made to encourage them to seek a seat on the T & I Committee. In the last Congress, NY had 5 members – all Democrats - at the end of the day we may have only 1 remaining – Jerry Nadler. In the past, NY has had as many as 7 representatives on this Committee.  Since this is where the surface transportation authorization legislation will eventually be written – it is extremely important for NY to have a strong voice in the Committee. The size of the Committee in the last Congress was 75 members. The new Congress will decide on the size and the proportion of Rs to Ds.

The Appropriations Committee:

The current Appropriations Committee Ranking Member, Jerry Lewis, R-CA, is seeking the chairmanship (he will, however, need a waiver from the GOP rule which limits its members to a six consecutive year's term as the top Republican on the Committee).  Representative Harold Rogers, R-KY, is expected to contest for the chairmanship. It is likely that these contenders will seek support of newly elected congressional members by calling for more fiscally conservative members to join the Committee. David Obey, D-WI, the current Chair, is retiring and Representative Norm Dicks D-CA is expected to be named the Ranking Member.

New York currently has three appropriators – Mr. Hinchey, Mr. Serrano and Ms. Lowey.  They will now, of course, be in the minority rather than the majority.

The Senate – Key Committees of Jurisdiction:
The Environment and Public Works Committee:

Senator Barbara Boxer (California), Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (the Committee that writes the highway portion of the surface transportation authorization legislation in the Senate) was re-elected. Notably, Senator Boxer, to the dismay of some business and interest groups, backed the Obama Administration's request to postpone a debate on a transportation reauthorization bill until 2011.

The Ranking Minority Member James Inhofe (R-OK) proudly calls himself “the most conservative member of the Senate,” however, it should be noted that he has been a strong supporter of infrastructure spending in the past.

While the Democrats remain in control of the Senate, their margin has been reduced.  The margin reduction could possibly result in Junior members of the Committee such as Kristen Gillibrand, (D-NY), and Jeff Merkley, (D-Ore), being casualties of reduced Democratic slots.

The Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee:

This Committee has jurisdiction over the transit portion of surface transportation authorization legislation.

With the retirement of current Chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, the leadership will likely pass to Tim Johnson – D-SD. Richard Shelby – R-AL, will most likely return as Ranking Member. (Thus – the Northeast loses another key leader and voice – in Dodd). It is important to note that this leadership change shifts to rural state Senators and could have implications for the pending transit provisions on the next surface transportation bill. However, it is also important to note that Senator Reed, D-RI, and Senator Schumer, D-NY, are currently number one and two, in Democratic seniority. As such, they will play a significant role on the Committee.

Issues Facing Congress in Financing Transportation:

A draft report released on Wednesday (November 10th) by the co-chairmen of the deficit commission -Erskine Bowles (D) and Alan K Simpson (R) - calls for a gas tax increase of 15 cents per gallon and a change in the budgetary treatment of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). They call for the increase in the gas tax to be gradual – beginning in 2013

On November 5th a letter signed by 31 transportation interest groups (highway builders, railroads, transit agencies, labor unions, etc.) was sent to Bowles and Simpson urging the commission to support recommendations that were contained in a proposal by Senators Voinovich – (R, Ohio), and Carper – (D, Del.). The Voinovich-Carper proposal called for raising gas prices by 25 cents a gallon – with 15 cents going to the HTF and the rest going towards deficit reduction.

Bowles-Simpson did not call for using gas tax funds for deficit reduction, instead, calling for revenues to be used exclusively for transportation spending. This would still have an impact on the deficit because it would end the practice of using money from the general fund to keep the HTF in the black. In fact, they recommend that transportation spending “be limited to existing revenue collections,” and that general fund “bailouts” of the HTF be strictly prohibited.

Bowles and Simpson also suggest that transportation trust funds should be made mandatory spending. This suggestion would result in an even more limited role for Appropriators.

Carper reacted favorably to the Bowles-Simpson draft report – stating that he was pleased that the commission embraced some of the suggestions he and Voinovich had made.

Carper said, “This proposal will address our transportation needs, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and reduce deficit. One of the clearest messages I heard from election night is that we in Washington need to do more to create jobs and reduce the deficit.” He also said that the commission recommendation is “essential unless we want our transportation system to crumble and our fiscal condition to worsen.”

The gas tax increase recommendation is pretty close to the proposal originally made by Congressman Oberstar.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has stated that an increase of 15 cents a gallon would be enough to support a six-year surface transportation bill equal to about $450 billion.


As we look at the upcoming congressional session and its impact on transportation investment, we must look at the issue of Earmarks. In March, 2010, the House GOP voted for a one year self-imposed ban on earmarks. The GOP was in the minority at that time. Now they will come into power as the majority in the House and will be able to set their own rules.

It is anticipated that John Boehner (R-OH) will be the incoming Speaker of the House and the likely Majority Leader will be Eric Cantor (R-VA).  Both have indicated that they support the extension of the earmark moratorium to 2011. Cantor, in fact, sent a letter to Republican Members-elect denouncing earmarks. If they do pass a House Rule on earmarking, it will not be binding on the Senate. Still led by a Democratic Majority, the Senate is likely to include earmarks in its surface transportation authorization proposal in 2011. This would set up an incredible hurdle in reconciling House and Senate bills.

As for the President, his view on earmarks could lead him into the debate as well. On November 3rd he stated, “I'm a strong believer that the earmarking process in Congress isn't what the American people really want to see when it comes to making tough decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent. And I, in the rush to get things done, had to sign a bunch of bills that had earmarks in them, which was contrary to what I talked about. And I think folks look at that and they said, gosh, this feels like the same partisan squabbling, this seems like the same way of doing business as happened before.” He went on to say, “And so one of the things that I've got to take responsibility for is not having moved enough on these fronts. And I think there is an opportunity to move forward on some of those issues. My understanding is Eric Cantor today said that he wanted to see a moratorium on earmarks continuing. That's something I think we can – we can work on together.”

It will be interesting to see where this all goes.  To be continued….

Looking Ahead:

The Obama Administration has also stated that infrastructure investment is an area that has received bi-partisan support in the past. The President may include certain provisions from Mr. Oberstar's draft reauthorization bill in the Administration's proposal. The Obama bill, is scheduled for release as part of the President's FY 2012 budget proposal.

A potential source of partisan friction in addition to financing may be the administration's effort to promote “livability” objectives in a transportation bill. Inhofe earlier this year referred to livability as a “lot of liberal stuff.”

In the short-term, the current Congress reconvenes on November 15.

Current surface transportation authorization will expire on December 31 and, since there is no new legislation ready to be enacted; it will need to be extended. The problem is that the plight of surface transportation authorization is not obvious to some Members of Congress and it's not on the top of the action items for many of them.

The message to extend current authorization needs to be brought home – and quickly.

If there is an extension it is advisable that it be for as long as possible:

  1. A longer period of time allows states to undertake larger projects;
  2. With the makeup of the new Congress, the Northeast and New York will struggle to get a better deal than they have under the current law.

An extension should also be clean. It is advisable that you advocate for a clean bill and ask the NY delegation to not support opening up the bill for changes.  Once the bill-and this is the case for any legislation - is reopened, then anything and everything is fair game. The bill is a series of interlocking compromises. Change everything or change nothing.

The Bipartisan Policy Center and others have floated the idea of a two year bill that has amendments to make it more efficient.

It is unknown where this all ends up, but it's important to keep the NY delegation engaged.

In looking at the Congressional makeup and the post election impacts, it would be a mistake to not look at the results that took place in the Governor races across the country. There were tremendous changes in Governors throughout the nation. Changes in Ohio, Wisconsin, to name two – will likely impact the HSIPR grants already awarded and will send some of that money back to the federal “kitty” – thus creating opportunities for states ready to move on passenger rail projects and in need of additional funding.

In the big picture scenario, more than half of the US will be under new management at the Governor level! This means that there will be a tremendous change in DOT commissioners or secretaries around the country as well. AASHTO, the states “Voice of Transportation” will essentially have a new Board of Directors. Pressure will be brought to bear to hold the line on spending as that is the platform that many Governor Candidates won their elections on. Continuity and context will suffer and must be reinforced.

It is going to take a concerted effort on the part of stakeholder organizations to educate Governors as well as new state legislators and congressional representatives on the importance of investing in transportation. It is imperative to emphasize the need for increased investment in an underfunded and over burdened transportation system. Make the point that such increased investments will lead to job creation and an improved and reliable infrastructure which will, in turn, improve the economy, promote mobility, safety and the environment.

We all have our work cut out for us. There are many challenges ahead – but an ever diligent effort needs to be made. Transportation matters and Congress and the states need to be reminded of that.