Congress Infrastructure

Transportation Committee Responds to the Stimulus Bill

We’ve been discussing the flaws of the proposed stimulus bill over the past few days, notably its relative lack of funding for transit and intercity rail. On Thursday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), discussed the matter. At the meeting, many of the members expressed quite a bit of negative feelings about the bill. Mr. Oberstar placed some of the blame directly on the Congressional Budget Office and the Bush Administration’s Office of Management and Budget, arguing that both were dismissing potential job-making opportunities simply because they didn’t feel like dealing with the needs of the new administration or working for the aid of the increasingly needy American people.

Some members even threatened not voting for the broader stimulus bill because of its limited proposed investments in transportation. We have our doubts about whether that would actually happen, considering the economy’s present need for any kind of investment, but the Transportation Committee’s objections to the bill – as well of those of the broader environmental community – give us hope that the draft of the bill we’ve seen in recent days is simply that: a draft. But these changes would have to be made in the House Appropriations Committee, not the Transportation Committee. And the Senate has yet to get its hands on this thing…

Here are a few choice quotes:

Mr. Oberstar:

“On those issues, we will have a review in this committee… The issue, frankly, is that the Congressional Budget Office says, “Oh, you can’t – the agencies under your jurisdiction, principally federal highways, can’t spend that money as fast as you proposed it, 90 days.” Now, we have a 90-day proposal, that half of that 60 – well, we started out with 85 billion dollars – be committed in 90 days, and if you don’t commit it, you lose that money state, or transit agency, or FAA, and it goes back to the national pocketbook to be redistributed elsewhere. And, Congressional Budget Office and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] said, “Oh, that money can’t be spent out that fast.” Where are they getting that information? From the current Federal Highway Administration, who’s leaving town! They have no interest in giving solid information, and they’re just dead wrong. I said in our meeting of our Democratic Caucus this morning is “The way to fix this is to fire all those damn CBO people, tell ’em, “We’ll hire you back in 6 months if you look good.” Maybe they’ll understand what a job means to people in the workplace that we represent.

“There are a million, three hundred thousand construction workers out of job now! That gentleman up there, Bud Schuster [sic?] and I have fashioned the T-21 legislation in 1998. Three million new construction jobs were created as a result of that legislation. We put funding, we put authority in the legislation to use of those highway trust fund monies to train apprentices for all of the building trades, and we did! It worked! We created real jobs, and we could do this again. States have lists, they – state transportation commissioners of the major states, in consultation with their colleagues in December in a conference call told me, “We have these lists, we will live by them, and we will produce the jobs, we will commit them to contracts.” And, listen, we’re going to have hearings every thirty days to, uh, hold all of these entities accountable under the jurisdiction of our committee. This is going to be every thirty days, they’re going to report on to whom the contract was awarded, how many jobs are on the job site in the first thirty days, what the job skills are, what the payroll is on that job site,  and then in the second thirty days, what is in the supply line. We have water, and wastewater treatment, a producer of ductile plastic pipe, clay pipe, concrete pipe, We’re going to have reports on all those suppliers and producers, because those are jobs too, that didn’t exist, but will exist now.

“And we have maintenance of effort required so that the states don’t abandon or cities or transit agencies abandon their plans or substitute recovery funds for their regular plans. This is to create new additional jobs. Now, if we do it this way, the accountability, transparency, and the 90-day use-it-or-lose it, we will have a million, three hundred thousand people working by the first week of June, and that’s my goal, and I know that’s your goal, because I’ve heard from so many of you about this.”

Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR):

“In the vane of what the Chair and the Ranking Member were just commenting on, I’d like to point out to members that at this point, real infrastructure investment is somewhere around 7 and 1/2 percent of this package. And I, for one as a member of this committee, do not believe that that is adequate. And when you look at the deficits and the deeds and I just – I’m all for getting some money committed quickly and getting people to work quickly, but we also need to be taking on some bigger projects that might take longer, as Paul Krugman pointed out, just as bad as economic times are, but again, seven and a 1/2 percent, and I would like to suggest that perhaps the committee, uh, wants to consider a letter or a resolution, to our, you know, leadership, suggesting that we need a much more substantial number on proven needs, for projects that can put people to work and make our transportation system more effective.

“I’m not happy with the tax cuts and many other, uh, parts of this proposal, and I don’t think I’m alone in questioning whether I will support it with that inadequate amount of money, and that people will say, how will solve transportation problems, but with that little amount of money, no, it will only touch the very tip of the iceberg of those problems, of that deficit. So, you know, I don’t know what action the committee might take or might think about taking, we are as I understand the largest committee in Congress, and if there were a substantial number of this committee who suggest that they couldn’t support a package where the infrastructure is less, way less, than 10% of the package, that might have an impact on the shaping of the package, for whatever that’s worth, Mr. Chairman.”

Mr. Oberstar:

“It’s worth a lot.”

Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY):

“At the conclusion of the Democratic Caucus this morning, at the very end of it, objection was raised by myself and several others, to the stimulus package on the grounds similar to what Mr. DeFazio is saying, and on the grounds that it’s simply not big enough, it ought to be much bigger if it’s going to stop the developing depression.”

Note: Mr. Nadler is proposing a meeting later this week with President-elect Barack Obama to discuss increasing the size of the bill – presumably putting a focus on expanding the infrastructure component. To Congressional in-fighting!

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