House panel preps marathon highway bill markup

House Republicans plan their own highway bill, saying they were locked out of discussions with Democrats

Peter DeFazio, Sam Graves are posing for a picture
Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., left, and ranking member Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 17, 2020 at 6:00am

The limits of pandemic legislating may be tested Wednesday when 66 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members mark up the 864-page, $494 billion highway bill largely online.

The task is, to understate it, daunting. By Tuesday evening, lawmakers on the panel had introduced 257 amendments to the bill. Committee rules will allow members to add additional amendments even as the markup proceeds and every amendment filed will be considered, though some may be considered en bloc. 

The markup may bleed into Thursday, according to committee staff.

[House transport bill would end Amtrak’s forced arbitration]

Like they did during a June 9 hearing on the impacts of COVID-19, members can opt to participate remotely or in the committee room with social distancing parameters.

The amendments range from minor tweaks in legislative language to overhauls.

Meanwhile, the panel's ranking member, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who called the Democratic bill “partisan” and “heavy-handed” in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper, said he and committee Republicans plan to introduce their own bill later this week.

That bill would provide extra flexibility to states and communities and would ease the process to get new projects started. It would also prioritize rural areas. 

“This commonsense legislation reflects the principles we were ready and willing to bring to the table,” he said, calling the Democrats’ bill the “My Way or the Highway” bill.

But it will be the Democrats' bill in the spotlight on Wednesday. Among the amendments:

  • Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., introduced an amendment that would create an infrastructure bank to provide low-cost loans and loan guarantees to build infrastructure projects. 
  • Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., filed an amendment that would create a grant program to help states identify mass evacuation routes and make those routes more resilient to extreme weather events. 
  • Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., wants to conduct a study on the safety performance of smaller trucks, including fleet structure, driver training and driver employment practices.
  • Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., wants the secretary of Transportation to develop screening to detect obstructive sleep apnea in commercial truck drivers.

Even as they plan their own bill, Republicans introduced amendments that aim to largely erase vast portions of the Democratic bill. 

  • Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., introduced amendments that would strike portions of the bill paying for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and grants for “transit-supportive communities”as well as a provision that would require automatic emergency braking for commercial motor vehicles and testing of the safety of transporting liquefied natural gas by rail.
  • Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, has introduced three amendments that would strike entire sections of the bill, including one that would require a study for a fee for freight services and one that would limit the hours of duty for yardmasters — the people in charge of a railroad yard.
  • And Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich, introduced amendments that would all but eliminate Subtitle C of the bill, which includes climate innovation grants, grants to help communities build active transportation routes such as trails, sidewalks and bikeways and gridlock reduction grants. In all, he introduced 12 amendments, all striking portions of the bill.


Unhappy Republicans

Republicans enter the process grudgingly, saying that the traditional bipartisan process of writing the highway bill has been largely abandoned. They introduced their own priorities in January — a list that included addressing the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund, incorporating technology to improve infrastructure, addressing the needs of rural communities and streamlining the project delivery process.

“In the months it took to develop this bill, there was never an offer to the minority to be a part of that process. Never,” said one Republican aide familiar with the process, who spoke on condition of not being identified discussing committee business. “You can’t slap on this veneer of providing a few days to review and digest this massive bill and call it a bipartisan process.”

But Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., defended the process in a press call when he introduced the bill, saying the time between its June 5 introduction and the June 17 markup provided ample time for input.

During that call, DeFazio said while he believed he and Republicans agreed on the need to build infrastructure resilient to catastrophic weather events, GOP staff seemed reluctant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Democrats' bill includes several provisions aimed at reducing emissions, and DeFazio himself has hailed the bill as “transformative.”

The climate change issue, DeFazio said in early June, “is absolutely key for my side of the aisle.”

The House bill would almost double the $287 billion highway bill approved unanimously by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last July and includes ambitious greenhouse gas reduction provisions, would invest money in charging stations for alternative fuel vehicles, and would effectively punish states that do not make progress reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. 

The bill ramps up investment in rail, providing $60 billion to address a maintenance backlog in rail infrastructure, establishing new intercity passenger rail routes and expanding commuter rail. That sum includes $29.3 billion over five years for Amtrak — more than three times the current level. 

And the House bill takes into account the economic impact of the pandemic, providing $83.1 billion in fiscal year 2021 to help save state and local transportation agencies that have watched their tax revenue plummet thanks to the coronavirus.

The current highway law expires Sept. 30.