The White House may be redecorated in 2013, but what Congress is willing to move may determine how the new administration looks from the outside.
Many would say the American public has been staring at a political facade that continues to crack at the foundation. According to an Aug. 14 article in USA Today, less than 2% of all proposed laws made it to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature in 2012. In all of 2011, a total of 90 bills made it all the way through, making the 112th Congress the least productive since 1948.
“The situation we have today is everyone is drawing hard lines in the sand and compromise is a dirty word,” Jay Hansen, executive vice president for the National Asphalt Pavement Association, told ROADS & BRIDGES. “I think the next Congress, the legislative agenda will look a lot like you are seeing today: gridlock, hard-lined positions, taking things to the fiscal cliff. To me, I just don’t see any kind of change in the overall governance of the country.”
Even though MAP-21 was passed in 2012, essentially sustaining the 2011 federal funding level for the transportation sector, the next House of Representatives and Senate could either have the road and bridge industry one step closer to a serious plunge or one step toward a safe haven. MAP-21 expires in September 2014.
“I don’t care who is running the White House, [passing legislation] is going to be harder than what it was getting MAP-21,” said Hansen.
Leaning one way
For President Obama, it may be harder to convince the American people what they will be getting as a leader than it was in 2008, when he built his platform around hope and change. The last four years has been a legislative grind for the transportation industry. After a modest portion of funds from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act were released to construction sites across the U.S., the next dose of good news did not come until two years later, when MAP-21 was passed.
The Obama administration, which talked on every street corner about the need for infrastructure investment, seemed to hide in a dark alley when the latest two-year measure was walking through Congress. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, came out with a bill to follow TEA-21, but something official coming from the Oval Office was absent this time around. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood even said MAP-21 did not have much of a chance to reach President Obama for his signature.
“[The Obama administration] was not part of the negotiations except when they were in opposition to Keystone and a few extraneous things in the bill,” Brian Deery, senior director, highway and transportation, at the Associated General Contractors of America, told ROADS & BRIDGES. “I don’t know how many times Secretary LaHood said it was not going to pass.
“Although the president has talked about infrastructure in his State of the Union and his budgets, I don’t think when push came to shove the administration was really there pushing for MAP-21. I was surprised that they were so out of the loop when it came to the discussions.”
It’s unclear if Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan will join the fight for future funding in transportation. Not much is known about Romney’s feelings when it comes to an increased investment in roads and bridges, but Ryan made his feelings well known in the House when the first attempt of a “long-term” solution, H.R. 7, was being worked on. Ryan’s budget in that bill called for a 35% reduction in highway spending and prohibited the transfer of general fund money into the Highway Trust Fund.
“In terms of the Ryan budget, and I think this is the key to the whole thing, it is going to be a ‘live within your means’ approach,” said Hansen. “I don’t see huge increases in federal funding, growing the program, coming out of Romney.”
ROADS & BRIDGES readers are still huge supporters of the Romney-Ryan ticket. When surveyed and asked whom they want as president, more than 67% favored the Republican platform. The margin closed slightly when they were asked whom they thought would actually win the November election, with just over 59% siding with Romney-Ryan.
According to Real Clear Politics, the race for the White House was a virtual dead heat in late September, with Obama holding a slim lead.
The fireworks in the House and Senate could provide a better grand finale when votes are tallied in a few weeks. Control of the Senate is still up in the air, as races in six states—Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Virginia—were too close to call at press time. Real Clear Politics had the Democrats holding a 48-46 edge, but Republican candidates were leading in five of the six toss-up states. The latest poll in Massachusetts had Democrat Elizabeth Warren holding a lead over Republican Scott Brown. More than 55% of ROADS & BRIDGES’ readers feel the Republicans will indeed hold the power in the Senate.
On the House side, Real Clear Politics is showing the Republicans holding a 229-183 edge with 23 seats still being hotly contested.
Regardless of any swing, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee will have a new chair with John Mica’s (R-Fla.) term expiring. Most industry experts believe Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is a virtual lock for the position. Shuster’s father, Bud, was the lead man of the T&I Committee when TEA-21 passed, and he has strong ties with the transportation sector.
“He is a real infrastructure guy and certainly his roots are deep with his father,” said Deery. “He was involved in a lot of the negotiations with [MAP-21].”
If the Democrats remain in control of the Senate, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will head the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has been the minority leader under Boxer, but if control of the Senate swings in the Republicans’ favor he would be next in line for the Armed Services Committee. It is unclear as to who will be the GOP majority leader for the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
MAP-21 is underfunded and too short, but it does provide state departments of transportation some level of certainty over the next two years. However, most of those responding to the ROADS & BRIDGES survey believe they will not be feeling the effects of the measure until late 2013 or early 2014, while just under 25% said it would happen in early 2013. Perhaps the best item to come out of MAP-21, the TIFIA loan program, will take a while to crank up. Most of that money will be used to fund much larger projects, which take longer to get off the ground.
“There is a big backlog of projects to get TIFIA loans—like 12-to-1 the number of dollars people were looking for compared to what they have available to lend out,” said Deery. “I think it will take a while. Even though a lot of people applied for loans, I’m not sure if all those loans are really eligible for TIFIA funding, and I think it is going to take a while for the states to figure out exactly which projects they want to fund with TIFIA.”
As for a funding solution for the next long-term highway bill, few hold out hope that one will be in place when MAP-21 expires. Almost 77% of ROADS & BRIDGES readers are either somewhat pessimistic or very pessimistic that Congress will have the right answer. There was hope that lawmakers would set a framework for a vehicle-miles tax, but more and more seem to be abandoning the idea. The chance of a raise in the federal gas tax is still extremely slim.
“It becomes a matter of where we are going to get the additional revenue from,” said Deery, who believes there is a chance the transportation sector could benefit from a new deficit tax bill. “But the fact we are going to be so close in the Senate, and it could be closer in the House, it is going to be tough to get a revenue increase, which makes getting a bill passed on time difficult again.” R&B