When Congress last passed a full-scale reauthorization of surface transportation programs, seven years ago, lawmakers and lobbyists took a decidedly traditional approach to greasing the legislative wheels sufficiently to get the bill on President George W. Bush’s desk. With more than 6,300 earmarks, billions were up for grabs — including the often-cited $200 million set aside for the now-infamous Gravina Island “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, secured in part by Rep. Don Young, the Last Frontier Republican who was then chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The federal government’s dire fiscal straits amplified the call for earmark limits soon after, reaching an apex during the 2010 campaign. After the GOP won control of the House that fall, promises were made to do away with earmarks — including those for transportation, a move that twisted even some die-hard conservatives into rhetorical knots. Perhaps nowhere has the shift to an earmark-free world on Capitol Hill been more abrupt than in this year’s long slog toward reauthorizing infrastructure spending programs administered by the Department of Transportation.
Without earmarks to cajole lawmakers to support funding roads, rail, waterways and transit, leaders and lobbyists alike have faced an uphill battle in trying to sell the need for a big-spending highway bill at a time when both parties have made public commitments to driving down the budget deficit and long-term debt. And at the same time, they’re fighting policy shop pros who are taking a stab at lobbying against federal transportation spending, what many in Washington, D.C., have long viewed as a sacrosanct pillar of Capitol Hill politics.
While the Senate passed a two-year transportation bill with bipartisan support in March, things in the House did not run nearly as smoothly. With no parochial carrots available to dangle in front of the rank and file — including the 87 freshmen who brought new urgency to cost-cutting in Washington — the GOP leadership was unable to garner a majority for its five-year proposal, deciding instead to put up a shell extension as a negotiating counterweight to the Senate’s bill, itself a shadow of the usually robust six-year spending measures typical for infrastructure.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who now chairs House Transportation, was quick to boast of his legislation’s earmark-free status, declaring proudly that such line items — for so many years the bread and butter of transportation lobbying — often “aren’t properly vetted; they haven’t had the sunshine antiseptic.” But Mica’s sentiments aren’t shared by all of his colleagues.
Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on Mica’s committee, called on the chairman to join him in supporting a return to the old process, saying lawmakers would be “doing our ... constitutional jobs, where we would have a legitimate insight, deciding local projects that are best for our people.”
A Shift in Focus
Lobbyists, too, have bemoaned the change. “It certainly makes the process more difficult,” John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said of the earmark ban’s effects on selling a transportation bill. AASHTO is one of the top transportation lobbying groups in D.C.
But it’s also created a big shift in responsibilities for transportation-focused K Streeters. Instead of pounding the pavement on the Hill to shill for more money and suggest where it should go, pro- infrastructure lobbyists instead find themselves schooling lawmakers on the critical nature of the highway bill, hoping they’ll make a strong enough case for the need for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades as others make a serious case for fiscal austerity.
Top lobbyists for AASHTO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association have worked overtime in recent months to “educate” lawmakers on the need for a transportation bill, previously an unheard of process.
“Sure, we’d have to explain funding formulas or something like that in the past,” one top infrastructure lobbyist said. “But now we’re actually having to sell the idea that roads and bridges are worth spending money on. ... That wasn’t something you needed to pitch; it was just a given.”
Interestingly, though, they’re also up against their own kind. Conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America, the Club for Growth and the American Enterprise Institute have seized on the sea change to make unprecedented pushes toward altering the federal government’s role in transportation and infrastructure policy and spending. At one end of the spectrum, that would mean cutting out the feds altogether.
“We see this as a big opportunity for us,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, the sister organization to the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We’re getting significant traction with a number of lawmakers.”
Heritage Action has, for instance, been a key player in advocating the “devolution” of highway spending. Once a lofty conservative goal that seemed unattainable, the push to get the federal government out of the business of planning and funding transportation projects altogether and returning that responsibility to the states has emerged as a major rallying point among some conservatives.
‘A Step in the Right Direction’
GOP Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.) is a supporter of devolution. A bill he introduced that would cut the federal gasoline excise tax from 18.4 cents a gallon to 3.7 cents over five years, allowing states to pick up the slack as they see fit, received the blessing of Heritage Action.
Though Graves’ legislation has yet to see the House floor, Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican and tea party favorite, was able to force a vote on something similar during that chamber’s highway bill debate. Though it mustered only 30 votes, Holler hailed it as a victory that such a proposal was even put to a floor vote. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” he said.
Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform group also threw its support behind a House proposal, by Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), that would let states opt out of the federal Highway Trust Fund mechanism. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) introduced a similar proposal to allow state lawmakers to decrease their contribution to the federal gas tax by increasing their state fuel levy instead, and forging an agreement with the secretary of Transportation to maintain interstate roadways with the recouped revenue.
But devolving federal transportation spending hasn’t been the only post-earmark-era lobbying brawl inserted in this year’s transportation bill battle. During the 2008 campaign season, Mica pitched a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild and expand the nation’s infrastructure, much of it through public-private partnerships.
The current debate in Congress would tackle annual spending levels far less than half of his ambitious plan, leading conservative policy lobbyists to push for greater flexibility for states in financing new projects. The American Enterprise Institute, for example, has argued against an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would bar states from including privately operated toll-road mileage in calculating how much federal formula highway spending they’d be able to collect.
An AEI fellow argued the amendment would thwart “one of America’s last hopes to revitalize its crumbling transportation infrastructure.”
But perhaps the starkest rebuke of transportation spending at the federal level came from the Club for Growth. Instead of arguing for shifting funding mechanisms or priorities, the conservative group urged House Members to simply kill off the $260 billion proposal floated by GOP leaders, even if it included major conservative policy goals such as forcing approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and opening large swaths of federal lands and waters to oil and gas drilling.
“Supporters of the bill will claim that there are plenty of positive reforms in the bill, like no earmarks or enhancement projects,” the group said in its warning, “but it’s still a remarkably bloated and inefficient piece of legislation.”
Arguments have also erupted over other once noncontroversial transportation provisions. The American Public Transportation Association had to beat back a GOP proposal to kill off the Mass Transit Account, which sets aside 20 percent of the taxes collected from fuel and truck sales for the Highway Trust Fund to fund capital improvements and services for public transportation systems around the country, a provision that surprised even many well-seasoned infrastructure lobbyists.
Despite all the hand-wringing on both Capitol Hill and K Street over the loss of earmarks setting the transportation funding dance to a starkly different tune, vestiges of the salad days of earmarking remain.
After rolling out the Senate Appropriations Committee’s final fiscal 2013 spending plan for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments, a number of lawmakers were quick to tout — with earmark-like specificity — how their constituents would fare. Hawaii’s four-member delegation touted $250 million tucked in the proposal for a Honolulu rail project, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) touted seven major public transit projects in the Golden State that would receive funding under the Senate’s plan.
“Securing dollars for mass transit in California is a top priority for me,” she said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.