If there had been no massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, would Congress have given more attention to legislation affecting the transportation and trade communities? The Deepwater Horizon disaster and its aftermath presented political high drama that left a load of unfinished business waiting in the wings.
Now the 111th Congress is winding down, midterm elections are cranking up, and political power is in the balance. When lawmakers return from their summer recess next week, they’ll have four weeks before heading out on the stump. Unfinished business has piled up, not the least being appropriations bills.
There’s a good chance lawmakers will return for a lame-duck session a week after the Nov. 2 election. Maybe bills affecting trade or transportation will make it through before adjournment, but here’s the harsh truth: The subjects aren’t as high on the congressional priority list as their supporters would like them to be.
“The bottom line, what’s going to happen? I don’t know,” said Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council. “It’s difficult to see how any transportation issue can become of sufficient priority to dedicate time to in the remaining days of session. There are larger issues — tax cut legislation, that’s a huge political issue. Issues like that dwarf the transportation agenda.”
Marcia Hale, president of the Building America’s Future coalition and a former congressional and White House staffer, doesn’t expect progress on transportation- or infrastructure-related legislation until next year, with a new Congress.
“It’s been my experience that if a bill is not 100 percent done, it’s not going to be considered in a lame-duck session,” she said. “I would expect there will be some movement on a transportation bill or infrastructure bank come the springtime.”
A new six-year transportation spending and Department of Transportation reform bill is the centerpiece for those trying to put infrastructure on the national agenda. In July 2009, Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced a $450 billion measure, and vowed to complete a new bill by Sept. 30, when the existing highway spending law expired.
Fourteen months later, SAFETEA-LU — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users — has had a number of short-term extensions, to the dismay of state officials anxious about disrupting the flow of federal dollars to state transportation projects. Oberstar only assented to short-term extensions to prod the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee into action. Its version of a new transportation bill may finally appear this month.
State transportation agencies are stretched to the limit, and it will be years before financing, contracting and construction projects return to normal, said Pete Rahn, senior vice president of the HTNB engineering and consulting firm, and former head of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
“Interstate 70 is one of the country’s transcontinental freight corridors. It’s one of the vital arteries of our transportation system, and it’s worn out in Missouri,” Rahn said. I-70 is 40 years old, and faces the same kind of deterioration as the rest of the country’s system. “Without a federal program to address this, I don’t see a future that allows us as a nation to be competitive.”
Rahn said the U.S. isn’t investing in the infrastructure that supports a manufacturing economy. Without the investment, the country can’t sustain a standard of living Americans are accustomed to. The question is how Congress pays for a multibillion-dollar transportation program.
“That is the elephant in the room. I don’t have a good answer,” said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
A rise in fuel taxes to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent is the best short-term solution, according to two national commissions, and the U.S. Chamber and the American Trucking Associations endorse the idea. “We are still firmly rooted in the position that the gas tax is the best way to do it, but when you’re facing down the barrel of a double-dip recession, maybe this isn’t the time,” Kavinoky said.
The notion of raising the gas tax is a political hot wire, but call it a user fee and couple it with new opportunities for private investment, and maybe it’s an idea Congress can embrace, she said.
“There’s a difference between spending money that disappears, and making investments that are returning jobs and having a long-term economic benefit,” Kavinoky said. “The arguments are there to be made. Have we been successful to date? No, but you can’t throw up your hands and say nothing’s going to happen. That doesn’t do anybody any good.”
The frustration in the transportation camp can nearly be matched by advocates for a host of trade-related bills, from reauthorization for Customs and Border Protection to reform of the export control system. Marianne Rowden, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, said a Customs bill has been circulating in Congress for a year, and the House and Senate may produce their bills this month.
Problem is, they’re very different. “I expect that account-based management and ACE will be the centerpiece of the House bill. They’ve asked a lot of questions about it. I’m gratified that they’ve taken our issues to heart,” Rowden said. “Every signal I’ve had is that the House Ways and Means has a broader scope. Their priorities go more to the heart of how Customs will operate for the next couple of years.”
The Senate Finance Committee’s bill focuses more narrowly, and includes a provision to create separate deputy commissioners to manage the agency’s security and trade facilitation operations, Rowden said. Both bills likely will include provisions for continuing work on the Automated Commercial Environment.
But she said there are a number of measures that together impair the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers in the global market. The Consumer Product Safety Commission supports a bill that would require foreign manufacturers to have registered U.S. agents that can be held liable for imported goods found to be hazardous to consumers. Two years ago, amendments to the Lacey Act banned imported goods made with illegally harvested wood. Now there is concern lawmakers might act to ban products from illegally mined minerals.
“Businesses are really worried. It’s not that the business community is opposed to the goals, but it’s very difficult with fungible commodities to track where they came from,” Rowden said. “By passing this nonsense, the Congress is doing two things: It’s not solving the ultimate problem that they aim at, and lawmakers want window dressing for elections, not good public policy.”
Ultimately, it’s consumers who pay.
Congress, Rowden said, is leveraging the power of the world’s largest economy and largest consumer market, but lawmakers don’t realize the world is changing. “In addition to losing our competitiveness, China is going to dictate the terms in the future, if we’re not careful,” she said.
Reform of the nation’s antiquated export control system is still high on the trade community’s list, but also fading down the stretch. The Obama administration is proceeding with an aggressive program to streamline the system. Rep. Howard L Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made export control reform a major issue, but there’s still no bill.
As the legislative season winds down, Berman will have more trouble moving his bill, said William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council. “If they produced it six months ago, it would have been a lot easier, but we’ll see. From what we’ve heard about it, I think the business community will oppose it. It grants too much authority to the executive without any limitations or policy guidance.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.