Congress reconvenes this week for a lame duck session. They'll take a break at Thanksgiving, and likely return to work into December. There are three transportation-related bills requiring action: (1) FY 2011 Transportation Appropriations; (2) SAFETEA-LU (expires 12/31); and the FAA reauthorization (expires 12/31).

Given the elections outcome it is questionable when the appropriations bill will pass (it will be either in November/December, or next February-ish) and if earmarks will be retained, reduced, or eliminated. There are 58 transportation earmarks for $225,404,000 for WA state. (See "What Will Happen to the 2011 Transpo Earmarks?")

However it’s fairly certain that SAFETEA-LU and the FAA bills will be extended, most likely into Spring of 2011. Some transportation interests are advocating for either a six-year bill, or a longer-term extension of one to three years, but those options seem very unlikely.

This week is likely to be consumed with leadership elections, new member orientations, and other organizational activities related to next year's Congress. It's unlikely any of the major issues will be debated and voted on this week. One bill that may come up in the Senate is a bill providing incentives for natural gas and electric vehicles (S 3815).

This week Congress will also address the issue of earmarking. A group of conservative Senators is pushing the Republican caucus to formally adopt a moratorium on earmarking. The measure is opposed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and conservative GOP Senator Jim Inhofe who called eliminating earmarks "a phone issue". [Update 11:30am: McConnell now supporting earmark ban.] Senate Democratic leadership intends to continue earmarking, arguing that recently enacted reforms have greatly increased transparency and accountability. In the House, the new Republican majority is likely to adopt a ban on earmarks. Since they control the chamber, they could prevent Democrats from securing earmarks in House bills. If the (Republican-controlled) House bills have no earmarks, and the (Democratic-controlled) Senate does, it will make for some interesting negotiations.

President Obama called for additional earmark reform in his weekly radio address last Saturday said "We can't afford Bridges to Nowhere like the one that was planned a few years back in Alaska. ... As President, time and again, I've called for new limitations on earmarks. We've reduced the cost of earmarks by over $3 billion. And we've put in place higher standards of transparency by putting as much information as possible In fact, this week, we updated the site with more information about where last year's earmarks were actually spent, and made it easier to look up Members of Congress and the earmarks they fought for."

There are two hearings of interest to transportation stakeholders:

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on air cargo security with Transportation Security Administration Administrator John S. Pistole on Tuesday.

The Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee holds a hearing titled "A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response" on Wednesday.

Key issues Congress face in the lame duck session include the 2011 budget for all agencies, expiring tax cuts, expiring extended unemployment benefits, a Medicare payment issue, a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, some energy and climate issues, and a couple of other tax issues.

Status Reports:

Surface Transportation Authorization:
SAFETEA-LU is extended through December 31, 2010, through the H.I.R.E. Act (HR 2847). The legislation restores funding rescissions enacted at the end of FY 2009, and provides the authorized funding level for 2010. The Senate EPW staff are drafting their version of an authorization bill, while the House released its draft bill in 2009. USDOT intends to release its authorization proposal in February. President Obama recently announced a $50B "front loaded" proposal.

Rep. John Mica, the republican who will chair the House Transportation Committee, says folks who think Congress will increase the gas tax are "smoking some kind of funny weed." He made similar comments last spring, noting that there will be only a three to five month window in 2011 to pass a transportation bill. "Gas-Tax Revamp Pushed to Fund Transportation Projects," WSJ

Congress passed and the President signed legislation funding USDOT and other federal agencies through December 3rd. Last July the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved a FY 2011 spending bill. Senators Murray and Cantwell designated WA projects for funding. The full House approved a FY 2011 spending bill (HR 5850) in late July. It contained significantly fewer earmarks that past approps bills, including the fewest number for WA state in over a decade.

Aviation Authorization:
The FAA authorization is also extended through December 31st. Both chambers have passed legislation; House and Senate negotiators have been trying to reach an agreement. The FAA has been operating under a series of short-term extensions since the authorization bill expired at the end of fiscal 2007.

Climate Change:
Prominent liberal & conservative think tanks joined to release a new climate change proposal. President Obama announced he intends to put the full weight of the Presidency behind climate change legislation in 2011. He'll pursue legislation in "chunks" instead of one big bill as was pursued in 2010. The House passed a comprehensive energy and climate bill in June 2009. Similar legislation remains stalled in the Senate over opposition from Republicans and a handful of Democrats. Prospects for passage this year are slim. Congress may again vote on delaying the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for two years. Previous votes to delay the authority have failed.

Posted On 11/15/2010 09:00:00 AM by Larry Ehl |

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