The U.S. port industry isn’t waiting to see how President Obama and Congress sort out September deadlines over transportation funding or what they offer in new spending proposals. Instead, ports are going directly to the new “super-committee” of lawmakers who can play an oversize role in saying who wins or loses in the next round of long-term budget decisions.
Those “supers” are the 12 members of the Senate and House — three Democrats and three Republicans of each body — who under this summer’s debt-ceiling agreement are empowered to draft more long-term budget cuts.
But their power could go beyond finding more programs to cut, because they also can determine which spending accounts should be protected or even bolstered to invest in vital national needs.
Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, wants those lawmakers to see port investments as vital. “We believe that it is imperative to focus scarce federal resources in those areas that can have the greatest impact” on the economy and national security, he said in an Aug. 31 letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. “Seaports are essential to economic prosperity, and federal funding for seaports pays dividends for our country.”
That extends ports’ aggressive efforts to be recognized as a key segment of the national transportation infrastructure.
Nagle earlier chastised the Department of Transportation when little of its first round of TIGER infrastructure grants went specifically to port improvement projects. In the second round, ports got a bigger cut of TIGER grants, and now President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood frequently mention ports in the same breath as roads and bridges when they talk about key infrastructure that needs more funding.
But Nagle’s note to the supers also reflects the growing belief among Washington policy groups that those 12 lawmakers may make the next big transportation spending decisions. Obama, Democrats and congressional Republicans have been fighting a running battle on transportation spending this year. The skirmishes already have sliced dollars from TIGER III and passenger rail grants, and led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now, the legislative super-committee has an unusually strong mandate to craft its own spending plans. The deal that created the panel also established rules under which Congress would have to accept whatever the supers agree on, or $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts take effect for the next decade.
Because the panel must report by Thanksgiving, lobbying groups are quickly shifting their focus to the lawmakers’ deliberations. That bypasses traditional committees, which will not decide critical dollar amounts this year.
Nagle attached the AAPA’s priority list to his letter. It includes continued funding for diesel emission projects such as repowered equipment, port security grants, new funding for channel deepening projects and full use of Harbor Maintenance Tax money that is now bottled up. And the list calls for investments in port infrastructure for intermodal access and broader freight mobility.