Committees Paving the Way for Infrastructure Policy

As we enter the September work period, Congress will first have to address the budget, appropriations, the debt limit, and expiring authorization measures, with tax reform and healthcare in the mix as well. However, we’re already thinking about the next big item on the agenda: infrastructure. An issue that crosses numerous committee jurisdictions, from Senate Committees on Environment and Public Works (EPW), Finance, Commerce, Banking, and Energy, to House Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce, crafting modern infrastructure policy will necessitate the input of many different parties, so where do we start?

While most of the committees of jurisdiction are currently focused on expiring provisions or pressing issues outside of infrastructure (Finance and Ways and Means – tax reform; Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure – FAA reauthorization; Banking – flood insurance; Energy – energy bill) the Senate EPW Committee, which has jurisdiction over highways, water infrastructure, and ports, does not have those same time-sensitive bills on its agenda, and therefore, is likely to lead the infrastructure effort.

In addition to a couple of water infrastructure bills, the EPW majority is rumored to be mostly settled on its first draft of core infrastructure legislation, including language that focuses on highways, drinking water, waste water, and environmental streamlining. Committee Democrats have a marker in the sand with the Schumer and Senate Democratic blueprint. In fact, in response to Chairman John Barrasso’s (R-WY) request for committee members to submit their top priorities for inclusion in an infrastructure bill, committee Democrats responded by sending a signed copy of the blueprint, which reportedly did not go over well with their Republican counterparts.

Democratic members of the committee may need to balance the approach of EPW Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE), who has historically worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle not only on larger measures, but also on targeted legislation, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who prefers a tougher negotiation stance on both policy and politics. As a result, many Democratic staffers feel like they are waiting for a signal from the top on how to proceed.

What makes the situation more difficult than it was a few weeks ago is that the president may be trying to change the conversation from controversial issues to infrastructure, and Minority Leader Schumer may be loath to allow him to make that pivot. Of course, no one can tell the president what to say, even if some in the administration are hoping the president does not make infrastructure political. The concern among infrastructure experts on the Hill is that the package will get pulled into a political tug of war, making it even more difficult to succeed on a bipartisan effort.

Of course, Chairman Barrasso could respond to his frustration over the lack of Democratic input, following his request, by reporting a bill out of the EPW Committee with no Democratic support. Whether such a measure would get to the floor remains a question, because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may not be all that interested in an EPW-jurisdiction only bill, nor an infrastructure measure that only has Republican support. On the other hand, some Democratic staffers are hopeful because at least on the water issues, infrastructure measures have historically been bipartisan. It remains to be seen, however, how this translates for a larger bill.

It is probable that the EPW Committee’s language may resemble what the administration is considering with regard to streamlining, though it is not likely to go as far as House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster’s (R-PA) Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act. President Trump kicked off his administration’s infrastructure week earlier this summer by pointing to the measure, which was introduced in the last Congress and would separate air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as an example of the approach the administration plans to take with its broader infrastructure effort to streamline permitting and focus on public-private partnerships (P3s). Staff cautioned it is not just the rural areas that will have a difficult time with P3s, and as a result, said that claims of using P3s for urban areas and direct spending for rural areas are talking points that are easily refuted. With numerous Republicans pointing to the different infrastructure needs of rural versus urban areas, we anticipate an infrastructure package will eventually include a rural title, along with titles on P3s, streamlining and permitting, and innovative and transformational projects.

But some members and staff remain skeptical about a larger bill’s chances, particularly as questions remain about how to pay for it. Ranking Member Carper is interested in having transportation legislation paid for by some form of user fees, a view that House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) shares. However, the predominant payfor focuses around repatriation, and it is very likely that repatriation will be used instead for tax reform, given that the majority prioritizes the tax effort over an infrastructure package.

It is a different calculus all together if congressional Republicans eventually decide to abandon majority-only tax reform or tax cuts in favor of combining it with a serious infrastructure package that brings Democrats to the table as well. To get there, however, it would take a dramatic turn from where Republicans have been, given the Democratic call for the tax debate to proceed under regular order, provide relief to the middle class without including tax cuts for the wealthy, and not increase the deficit. Furthermore, many staffers believe that if Congress is really going to get something done on infrastructure, it will absolutely need to include serious direct spending.

On the Administration side, details about the Trump Administration’s trillion dollar infrastructure plan remain vague, a newly announced infrastructure council will remain unpopulated, and the administration is mired in controversies and a host of other issues that must be addressed first. The administration’s six-page fact sheet, which was tucked into President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, calls for spending $200 billion in direct federal dollars over the next decade to upgrade roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and other transportation networks, along with broadband, schools, and hospitals. The administration envisions the federal funding, along with incentives for states, cities, and private investors and a significant focus on reducing regulatory burdens and hastening the licensing and permitting process, as spurring additional private investment to the tune of $800 billion.

To that end, congressional infrastructure staffers from both sides of the aisle met with their administration counterparts earlier this summer to discuss ways to approach an infrastructure package, including how to spend money. Staffers in attendance indicated there was a distinct interest in working on innovative technology and making sure that there is support, including financially, for transformative efforts. Interestingly, some of the administration staffers mentioned adopting the Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program model.

In the coming weeks, we will continue our conversations with staffers on all eight committees involved in the infrastructure debate, and will share with you our thoughts and analyses of Congress’ and the administration’s efforts to craft an infrastructure policy updated for the 21st century.