Photo by Hisham Ibrahim
Congress will resume session today after taking a break for Thanksgiving.

The most critical issue this week for transportation stakeholders is that the continuing resolution - spending authority for USDOT and other federal agencies - expires this Friday evening. Congress must pass another continuing resolution or an appropriations bill. No decisions have been made but it sounds like the House is leaning toward another continuing resolution that would run through December 17. Senate Democratic leaders prefer an omnibus bill but it's unclear if they could get the necessary Republican votes, or if the House would go along.

Other key events this week: the Senate may vote on banning earmarks in the next Congress, and President Obama meets with the incoming Republican leadership to discuss legislative priorities and policy.

The balance of power in the Senate shifts tonight as Republican Mark Kirk is sworn in to replace Democrat Roland Burris (appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Obama). Democrats will then need two Republican votes to defeat a filibuster. Two new Democratic Senators - Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – were sworn in shortly after the midterm election, but they replaced Democrats so the the balance of power remained unchanged.

Congress has yet to make much progress on the issues needing action during the lame duck: the 2011 budget for all agencies, expiring tax cuts, expiring extended unemployment benefits, a Medicare payment issue, a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, some energy and climate issues, and a couple of other tax issues.

So far no action has been taken on the primary transportation-related bills: (1) FY 2011 Transportation Appropriations; (2) SAFETEA-LU (expires 12/31); and the FAA reauthorization (expires 12/31). Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell now opposes an omnibus bill, which could result in a short or long term continuing resolution. However some of his retiring Republican colleagues may want to pass a bill this year while they can still direct some funding to their state. At any rate, it's a decent bet that earmark amounts will be reduced, and it's entirely possible they could be stripped out of the legislation.

House Republicans voted for a two-year moratorium on House legislation earmarks which will take effect in January. This effectively prevents House Democrats from earmarking. Senate Republicans also voted for a two-year moratorium. However the Democrats control the Chamber, and so far appear to want to continue earmarking.

President Obama supports an earmark moratorium. However, funds that aren't earmarked will likely revert to the Administration for grant programs - giving the Administration increased influence in what kinds of projects are funded. In FY 2010 Congress directed 9,000 earmarks worth $15.9 billion to their districts, less than 1% of the more than $3 trillion federal budget and down from a high of $29 billion in 2006.

Several Members, including conservative Republicans, believe transportation projects should NOT be subject to an earmark ban. It's unclear if they're referring to appropriations, authorization, or both. [See Exempt Transpo from Earmark Ban? Some Republicans Say Yes]

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.

The Senate delayed acting on a bill providing incentives for natural gas and electric vehicles (S 3815), and may not act on it this year.

Status Reports on T-LU Authorization, Appropriations, and Climate Change:

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, though there have been rumors of a later release. President Obama announced a $50B "front loaded" proposal for infrastructure improvements.

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

Appropriations:
Congress passed and the President signed a continuing resolution that funds USDOT and other federal agencies through December 3rd. The full Senate Appropriations Committee approved a FY 2011 spending bill in July, and the full House approved a FY 2011 spending bill in July. The House bill contained significantly fewer earmarks that past approps bills, including the fewest number for WA state in over a decade.

The two combined bills designate $231,404 for 58 projects in WA state.

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:
Some environmental groups are adjusting their tactics for the incoming Congress. The House will have a different approach to climate change and energy issues. Testimony is now available from The Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee recently hearing titled "A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response"

Last October, 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 11/29/2010 09:44:00 AM by Larry Ehl |

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