Republican Initiatives Could Stymie Transportation Legislation


March 2011

Republican Initiatives Could Stymie Transportation Legislation


Two initiatives by the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives may thwart transportation legislation over the next two years.

The first is a House rules change eliminating a rule that barred lawmakers from considering legislation that failed to appropriate transportation funds at the level guaranteed in authorization law. The 1998 rule was enacted to ensure that money in the Highway Trust Fund was used only for transportation and was not allowed to build up so it could be counted against the federal deficit.

Proponents say the change ensures that lawmakers will not be forced to spend more on transportation than the Highway Trust Fund collects. Transportation spending has outpaced trust fund revenue in recent years, requiring infusions of billions of dollars from the general treasury. While the new rule continues to reserve Highway Trust Fund money for transportation purposes, critics fear money will lie fallow in the fund as Congress attempts to offset the growing federal deficit.

The Republican moratorium on earmarks also could impede transportation legislation. Though the earmark ban was not written into House rules, Republicans can enforce the ban through leadership decisions now that they control the House. The Senate, which retains a Democratic majority, has not adopted a ban, but with President Obama's vow to veto earmarked bills, the political climate is becoming increasingly inhospitable to earmarks, making passage of earmarked legislation virtually impossible.

Some proponents of the earmark ban, however, do not see directed project funding as earmarks. "I don't believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who supports the moratorium on earmarks.

The Council on the Federal Procurement of Architectural and Engineering Services, of which NSPE is a founding member, sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to make a clear distinction between earmarks and legitimate project authorizations that recommend necessary funding levels for essential programs and services. To ensure integrity and transparency in the project authorizations process, COFPAES also recommended that:

  • Any bill or amendment affecting project authorizations should be available to the public at least 72 hours before any subcommittee, committee, conference, or floor vote;
  • Each project should be reviewed based on transparent and objective standards and criteria prior to being included in any bill or amendment, and the analysis should be publicly available;
  • Each project should contribute to national systems and meet national needs and goals, not solely local interests;
  • Each project should be specified in legislation, not committee reports, providing opportunity for full debate and amendments to strike projects; and
  • Each project that receives an appropriation first must be specifically authorized by law.

Despite these roadblocks, Congress has not given up hope on a transportation bill. New House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) hopes to have a bill ready for the House floor by spring. Though Mica will not request more than the Highway Trust Fund can sustain, he hopes to maximize available funds through public-private partnerships and identify "idle" funds that could be repurposed. The bill could call for as little as $250 billion over the next six years, which is half of the $500 billion ousted Chairman Jim Oberstar sought during the last Congress.

NSPE believes that properly funded, designed, constructed, operated, and maintained infrastructure directly benefits the public's health, safety, and welfare.

For more information, please see NSPE's position statement on infrastructure:


Top Priorities

With the 112th Congress under way, here are the legislative priorities NSPE will focus on.

  1. Protect and promote qualifications-based selection;
  2. Advance K?12 engineering education;
  3. Enact comprehensive energy legislation reflecting that all forms of energy are necessary to meet America's current and future demand, with the ultimate goal of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil;
  4. Improve the state of America's infrastructure; and
  5. Provide Good Samaritan protection for professional engineers volunteering in a declared emergency.