Angry Voters, Departing Politicians Will Shake Up Congress

 

November 2010

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
Angry Voters, Departing Politicians Will Shake Up Congress

BY SARAH OGDEN

President Barack Obama once said, "Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change." He's right: With elections on the horizon, the desire for change that swept him into office and brought Democratic numbers in Congress to a nearly filibuster-proof majority may be sweeping the ruling party right back out. Disgruntled voters, unhappy with the 9.6% unemployment rate and the government's inability to jump-start the economy, have flaunted their displeasure at the polls, ousting career politicians in primary elections.

At least 75 congressional seats, most of which are held by Democrats, could change hands in November. Republican gains are expected to be sufficient to halt the agenda of the Democrats, whose health care package was a major victory for the party. Presidential veto, however, ensures that the GOP agenda won't advance, either. Basically, until the highly partisan atmosphere dissipates, there will be as much gridlock inside the Beltway as there is on the Beltway.

What would the congressional upset mean for PEs? Of the seats that are open or have been identified as "toss-up" races, at least 41 are occupied by members of Congress who serve on engineering-related appropriations subcommittees and energy, education, and transportation committees. The members of these committees work most closely with legislation that affects the engineering profession.

NSPE—as a professional society and through its coalition memberships—builds trusted relationships with these committee members to educate them about engineering issues related to their committee work and legislation. When the members of Congress retire or are defeated, NSPE builds new relationships and maintains relationships with other members of the committee. When a large number of committee members are replaced at once, however, the committee loses institutional memory.

On a larger scale, the impending turmoil has slowed preelection congressional work, as House members take extra time to canvass their districts and make partisan flourishes on the Capitol floor. Since the 111th Congress is winding down, several large measures are being pushed to the next session, including the infrastructure reauthorization bill. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) plans to weave President Obama's $50 billion infrastructure package into the bill.

Obama's plan emphasizes high-speed rail and "livability" and recommends replacing earmarks with performance-based funding. Startlingly, the $50 billion is intended to be spent in the first year of the bill. The White House declined to estimate the full authorization amount over the bill's six-year period but did say the bill would be funded by stripping oil and gas companies of certain tax benefits.

Whether Oberstar's bill will pass remains to be seen. With elections this turbulent, partisanship may override America's need for better infrastructure.

Read NSPE's position statements on infrastructure and other topics by going to: www.nspe.org/GovernmentRelations and clicking on "Take Action."