Marine Transportation System

Kindest and Other Trump Cuts

In Congress, Energy/Environ, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Ports, Security, Transportation Policy on March 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

President Donald Trump’s 62-page “skinny” budget proposal — he calls it his budget “blueprint” — is devastatingly consequential for most departments and agencies. (See my prior post.) It tells you, for example, that the State Department will take a 28 percent hit should Congress concur in this first Trump Administration budget request, but it is short on how the programs at State and most other departments will be affected. For that we will have to wait a few more months until the main budget document is to be released — or leaks emerge — and the various budget experts do their analysis.

Will Congress adopt the president’s idea of winners and losers? Maybe not. His proposal is hardly a strictly partisan expression to which all Republicans will faithfully adhere, even if it is in the direction that they want to support. Moreover, as much as he wants to see a big defense build-up, dealer Donald Trump’s budget has to be seen as his opening gambit in an appropriations process that is only just getting started. Meanwhile, the budget document and agency press releases provide some information. Here is what we know.

Corps of Engineers
The USACE civil works program proposed number of $5 billion is $1 billion less than current year funding — a 16.3 percent reduction — but, historically, that’s not so bad. That is actually higher than the Obama FY17 budget. Every White House low-balls the Corps budget. The annual fiscal dance is for the president to bid low because he knows Congress will respond high. There is no more detail to report at this point. If there is a caution here it is that the Corps budget can’t be viewed in isolation from the total Federal budget. This clearly is not a normal year. If the Defense Department and Homeland Security are going to benefit in the substantial way that the White House proposes, the competition will be for your program to lose less than the others. If Congress were to provide the civil works program with more than $5 billion, as it has in recent years, that might come from other parts of the budget that are already proposed for stiff reductions.

Transportation
The budget blueprint shows a $2.4 billion reduction in spending over current year levels — a cut of 13 percent — and contains enough detail to identify some major programs targeted for elimination. Not surprisingly, the $500 million, multimodal TIGER grant program is prominent in that category. The White House would remove this most reliable source of funding for non-navigation port projects, including inside-the-gate improvements. (About $51 million was awarded to six port-related projects in FY2016.) TIGER, started in 2009, has survived past Republican efforts to eliminate funding but it has had strong support from Democrats and even Republicans. The White House is not alone in suggesting that TIGER is to some extent duplicated by the FASTLANE grants program that was created in the FAST Act and is dedicated to freight projects. (The Trump budget retains FASTLANE.) However, that part of the five-year FASTLANE program that most interests ports is the multimodal portion that is not limited to highway projects. Much of the total $500 million multimodal authorization was allocated in just the first year of the $900 million annually authorized spending for FASTLANE. There is no such modal limitation in TIGER. We will see if appropriators allow TIGER to end.

The DOT budget also would also eliminate funding for long-distance Amtrak operations, start down the path to private sector management of the air traffic control system, end the Essential Air Service program that is a major benefit for rural states, and close out a transit capital grant program.

Secretary Elaine Chao issued a statement on the budget blueprint announcement. It includes an oddly incongruent description of a national budget that the OMB itself acknowledges does not address deficit reduction. It also references an Administration talking point that, while proposing to reduce spending on transportation infrastructure, the budget is consistent with whatever will be the promised trillion dollar infrastructure initiative. The Secretary’s statement explains that the “strategy behind” the DOT capital spending cuts “is to move money out” of existing programs and into “more efficient programs” in the still undefined Trump initiative. We will have to see how that manages to end up being a net plus for transportation projects. From Chao’s statement:

This is a strategic document that looks to the future, and is designed to send a clear message on deficit reduction. For DOT, it addresses the department’s discretionary programs, which make up about one-quarter of the Department’s total resources. These proposed savings are largely geared towards future program investments, so they will not have an immediate direct impact on our DOT colleagues. This is just the beginning of the budget process, not the end. We will see the more complete picture when OMB releases its final FY 2018 budget in May, and as the President’s infrastructure initiative takes shape. In fact, OMB Director Mulvaney noted yesterday that the strategy behind the savings in the DOT budget is to move money out of existing, inefficient programs and hold these funds for more efficient programs that will be included in the infrastructure package under development.

E&E News reported that OMB Director “Mick Mulvaney said the cuts to federal funds for transit and roads would be balanced by an infrastructure package coming to Congress in the fall. The grants proposed for elimination in yesterday’s spending wish list were targeted “in anticipation” of a more fleshed-out White House plan…”

The lead Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), was not complimentary, and not without irony, in commenting on the Trump planned cuts for USDOT.

The skinny budget exposes that as a big, fat lie. These are real investments. They could be putting people to work this summer. It’s infinitely stupid for Republicans who have just taken over everything to give up TIGER grants, which are at the discretion of the Republican Secretary of Transportation, and I’m sure they’ll use them much more politically than the dunces at the Obama administration did. [E&E News]

Homeland Security
DHS is proposed to get 6.8 percent more in the coming year to benefit the construction of a southern border wall and heightened enforcement of US immigration law through technological and human resources. Significant additions of personnel — 500 more in Customs & Border Patrol (CBP)  and 1,000 more for Immigration Control & Enforcement (ICE), plus support staff — also are intended to strengthen border security. Another $1.5 billion is slated for cybersecurity activity to protect Federal networks and critical infrastructure.

The budget proposes to cut State and Local security grants by $667 million. Earlier reports suggested a probable 40 percent reduction in the Port Security Grant Program but analysis by the Democrats of the House Appropriations Committee concludes that the budget means a 25 percent reduction in the program, from $100 million to $75 million.

According to prior releases of information the budget includes a cut in the Coast Guard, but that is not highlighted in the materials released by the White House and DHS yesterday. Instead, the DHS release simply says that the budget “sustains current funding levels [for the Coast Guard]…which allows for the continuation of day-to-day operations and investments in the Acquisition, Construction, & Improvements account.”

The budget document also states that the Transportation Security Administration will experience the elimination and reduction of “unauthorized and underperforming programs.” Details presumably to follow.

Environmental Protection
Of all the Federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency is targeted by the Trump Administration for the deepest cut — a 31 percent spending reduction. The budget statement offers an ironic compliment (kindest cut?) in suggesting that the “budget for EPA reflects the success of environmental protection efforts…” as if to say, “job well done.” The EPA section appears to be the only one of the two-page department and agency sections that specifically notes the anticipated reduction in personnel — “3,200 fewer positions.”

The proposed budget provides “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure” that is comparable to current levels. It ends funding for Obama’s “Clean Power Plan, international climate programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts…” It reduces the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance budget, reduces Categorical Grants funding, and “eliminates more than 50 EPA programs that are “lower priority,” “poorly performing,” and “duplicative.”

The budget document proposal to end funding for multi-state regional efforts such as restoring Chesapeake Bay. The proposal to end funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative  is no partisan matter. Nine senators led by Rob Portman (R-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sent a letter to the White House expressing their concerns, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) joined them in opposing the cuts.  Pbea

A Budget Like None Other?

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, President on March 20, 2017 at 9:31 am

A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity.   [President Donald Trump in the introduction to his FY18 Budget Blueprint]

President Trump defines public safety in a way that accommodates a substantial reduction in environmental enforcement, diplomacy, and foreign assistance in order to spend more on the Pentagon and border enforcement. His zero sum approach adheres to current, statutory limits on overall Federal spending, thus there are clear winners and clear losers in his “blueprint” for the FY18 budget that was sent to the Hill last Thursday.

Donald Trump’s top-line budget — most details still months away — is the sort that Congress has not been seen in my 45 years working in Washington…and probably not for many decades prior that. Certainly not since some of those departments were created. Threats to cut the budget to some extent, yes. Largely empty campaign promises to eliminate departments, sure. But not a 10 percent increase for the single largest department that already has the equivalent of all other government agencies’ discretionary spending, combined.

Defense would see a $54 billion increase while the Transportation Department would see a 12.7 percent reduction, Labor Department 20.7 percent, State Department 28.7 percent, and Environmental Protection Agency 31.4 percent. Of the 13 Cabinet departments that are proposed for cuts only three are targeted for drops less than 10 percent. Only Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs are slated to see increases.

Consistent with the President’s approach to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility, the Budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to refine the proper role of the Federal Government. [from “Budget Highlights”]

The proposed budget does nothing to reduce spending in the aggregate. In fact, it challenges Republicans in Congress to set aside their first opportunity in a while for two legislative chambers and the White House to cut overall spending.

This isn’t the first time Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, of course. But it is as if it takes someone with no experience in government to know what are disposable missions and programs across the Federal government. Or, perhaps, it takes such a person to simply not care. Nineteen agencies — many small and obscure but among them the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Art, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Institute for Peace — are specifically identified for elimination. Other unidentified agencies apparently would be substantially weakened by cuts.

The president’s first budget message faces a predictably rocky road ahead. His own party may be in charge of Congress but that doesn’t protect Trump’s “skinny” budget — an average of two pages per department — from also being called “dead on arrival.” DOA is the usual label legislators apply to any president’s budget submission. However, it may be no more apropos than it is for Donald Trump’s first budget policy expression. A representative counter expression on Capitol Hill is that of fellow Republican Hal Rogers (KY) who served for six years as chair of House Appropriations.

While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. … As General [Jim] Mattis [and now Secretary of Defense] said prophetically, slashing the diplomatic efforts will cause them to have to buy more ammunition. There is [sic] two sides to fighting the problem that we’re in: There is military and then there’s diplomatic. And we can’t afford to dismantle the diplomatic half of that equation.”[The Washington Post]

House and Senate members of the president’s party have found a lot not to like. Favored programs and agencies would be cut, if not eliminated, on the non-defense side of the ledger. Some Republicans have also criticized Trump’s trumpeted “10 percent” hike in defense spending as misleading and insufficient. The chairs of the Armed Services committees claim that in actuality the proposed increase is only three percent greater than what Congress funded for the current year. They want more. Then there are the Republicans whose firm ambition to reduce and ultimately end deficit spending is not served by the White House proposal. (The president’s new Director of the Office of Management & Budget, former House Member Mick Mulvaney, was in that camp just months ago.) Intentionally, the new president’s budget does not propose to change the existing multi-year agreement in law that sets an overall spending limit.

Suffice it to say that the Democrats see a document that is easy to oppose. They promise to leave to the majority party the job of approving some form of it, gladly wanting the GOP to be on the record as cutting popular programs. The minority party members already are positioning themselves as not responsible for a government shutdown should the GOP not have the votes to keep the government funded. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement warns, in so many words, “don’t count on us to help pass your budget.”

If Republicans insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy. [Chuck Schumer (D-NY)]

As telling as the 62-page White House document is, the skinny budget will be followed in May by something resembling a full budget with greater detail that should formally indicate, for example, if the Diesel Emissions Reduction Grant program is proposed for elimination and how much less would be available for Port Security Grants. The May document might also be expected to cover other crucial detail that budgets normally provide.

The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes that “by focusing only on discretionary spending, this budget effectively ignores 70 percent of spending and 90 percent of its growth over the next decade.” That is a reference, substantially, to the defense and national security portion of the Federal budget and the Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid entitlement programs.

As stated earlier, the slashing and shrinking of domestic Federal programs and agencies is proposed to benefit the Defense Department with a $54 billion increase, in addition to plus-ups for the nuclear program and border security. Nowhere in the budget document is there a reference to the substantial sums that various independent reports have identified as being in reach with the adoption of Pentagon reorganization and other efficiencies. Might that come later?

Last note, to complete the picture: The Trump blueprint for FY18 is accompanied by a supplemental request for the current FY17 that includes an extra $33 billion for the Defense Department, the border wall, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

To read the Trump budget “blueprint” find it here. The 56th page has a table that provides a quick look as to how the proposed budget compares with current year levels.  Pbea

 

Making a Last, Lasting Maritime Policy Impression

In Congress, Federal Government, Legislation, MTS Policy, Ports, Transportation Policy on September 21, 2016 at 11:37 am

An earlier version of this appeared in the Deep Water Notes newsletter of the Connecticut Maritime Coalition.

Summer is coming to a close. The same might be said of the Obama Administration and the 114th Congress, both timing out at or soon after the end of the year. And, as of this writing, the 2016 presidential campaign ends in under 50 days. All of which means we are entering a familiar, but critical period in governing.

It is decision time for all. They ask themselves — What can we get done in the time remaining? What will be the lasting impression and effect of this congress, this presidency, this election?

I won’t try to speculate on the last of those. Besides, nary a whisper has been heard on the stump about the port/maritime sector. (Surprised? Not at all.) Instead, here are some thoughts on two matters pending and percolating in the two branches of government.

National Maritime Transportation Strategy.    From the start, some people scoffed at the idea of preparing such a document. The Maritime Administrator was sincere when he started a public thought-process in January 2014. It was to culminate, a year later, in a document that might give direction to US activity and, in the process, highlight policy areas that could use attention and support from the maritime community and policy makers. Not surprising, there was plenty of skepticism, doubting that higher-ups in the department and in the White House would care when the draft came their way and they picked up their red pencils.

For that matter, some organizations in the maritime sector itself were less than enthusiastic about assembling a national strategy document for reasons that 1) they alone would have to explain, and 2) frustrated the stakeholder discussion and drafting efforts at MARAD.

It doesn’t help if members of your core constituency are afraid of what might result or are so jaded that they don’t want to bother.

Today, the still unpublished document is nearing the end of the draft process. That is a hopeful characterization for a paper that has spent the last ten months in “interagency review” garnering three hundred or so comments, to which MARAD is responding, and then to go through the wringer again for one last review. With around 20 agencies and departments having some interest – whether direct or remote — in ports and maritime transportation, one imagines 20 red pencils worn to the nub.

In gestation for over two years, having gone through wringers, reviews, and collecting dust in offices where US maritime policy is little considered, it is anyone’s guess as to the document’s ultimate value for the port/maritime sector. The most that we, and Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, can hope for is that the final draft will be released for comment before the Administration loses its license to operate.

Put any skepticism aside. It would be useful to have a “maritime strategy” document circulating among the transition teams and the policy planners and makers of the executive and legislative branches starting in 2017.

If anything it could spark attention to a subject area that has been easily ignored and misunderstood at higher levels of government for far longer than the last eight years. Officials and their staff could benefit by reading about the need for investing in ports, preparing the transportation system for the effects of larger ships, adapting to and adopting new technology, growing the domestic maritime service, preparing the next skilled workforce, and improving the port/maritime environment.

Those are consequential topics. That is what the document is about.

Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA 2016).   It is possible that Congress will complete action on a WRDA bill. The Senate last week passed its version (S.2848). On the other side of the Hill, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the House version (H.R.5303) will have to wait until after the election when the legislators will reconvene for a lame duck session.

That is a disappointing delay for WRDA advocates but we can take some comfort in hearing both McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) mention WRDA 2016 as something to get done this year.  Still, with no more than a week of legislative days left before the election break, and facing an unspecific period for what can be an unpredictable lame duck session, most anything can get in the way of bill completion.

Committee leaders want to demonstrate that they can send a WRDA bill to the White House just two years after the 2014 act, and in the process provide some biennial predictability to authorizing water resource projects like navigation and flood control improvements.

The port/maritime sector has a lot at stake in this bill, which would authorize the Corps of Engineers to undertake Portsmouth, Charleston, Ft. Lauderdale, and Brownsville channel improvement projects. Those ports have been waiting for this key step to be taken by Congress. If the bill dies this year, it could be another two years before the next one.

The House and Senate versions of WRDA 2016 contain a large number of policy provisions that would improve a burdensome Corps’ civil works process, strengthen the leverage of ports in the study and implementation phases of Federal navigation projects, and, eventually, improve channel maintenance funding.

The last and most consequential of those is a provision in the House bill that would lead to full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and its user-paid Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues. It would enable something like direct funding of the Corps for maintenance work. For reasons explained by arcane congressional budget rules, the legislation would make that change effective eleven years hence.

Would it be worth the wait?

Put it this way: Ports have waited since 1986, when the HMT and HMTF were created, for maintenance of navigation infrastructure to be funded at needed levels, and for the trust fund to be taken “off-budget” and protected from being used to balance against deficit spending in the larger Federal budget.

Yes, it would be worth the wait.   Pbea