Marine Transportation System

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Congress Should Ban/Allow Earmarking

In Federal Government, Politics, Water Resources on December 17, 2010 at 1:28 am

Step right up to the Washington Sideshow! See the lobbyist do strange things.

Go ahead.  Don’t be afraid.  Ask me about earmarking.  Then watch my head spin, my eyes bulge, and listen as I speak in exasperations, convolutions and contradictions.

Outside the Beltway earmarking might be a specialty of tattoo artists.  Inside the Beltway, and in the public sector among countless State and local officials–and even in the private sector–earmarking is about addressing solving problems and getting business done.  It is what you ask of your Senator or Member for your town or company or non-profit.

Earmarking, rarely adequately-explained in the media, is usually defined as bacon-brought-home.  The water supply project.  The library addition.  The in-the-bag contract with the Army.  The jet fighter the Air Force doesn’t want but your constituents want to build.  The genome research grant.  The road extension.

The claim is that earmarking costs money that otherwise would not be spent and, in any event, should not be spent in this time of record deficits.  Others respond that it represents “only” less than 1 percent of the cost of a major funding bill.

Defenders of earmarking reach for the Constitutional argument: Congress and Congress alone was given responsibility for making funding decisions.

Besides, goes the insulting tag line, why should Congress defer to “faceless,” “unelected” “bureaucrats” to decide what projects to fund or grants to award?

As a practice congressional earmarking grew significantly over the past 10 or so years.  Today thousands of earmarks populate annual appropriations.  Over 6,000  projects were in the last enacted surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU.  (The name that includes the then committee chairman’s wife’s name is itself an earmark.)

Recent congresses have adopted ever tighter rules to improve transparency and to formalize making earmark requests.  However in this post-election period we see earmark critics empowered to the point of sending once-proud practitioners to the public confessional from which they emerge chastened and converted to the cause.

The Washington Sideshow can be entertaining.  Righteous conservatives decry earmarking and then do an about-face as if it the real implications of an earmark ban on their ability to help their districts suddenly dawn on them.  (Doh!  I need that road project!)

Okay, enough about Congress.  What about your head spinning?

Okay. Here goes. Earmarking has gotten out of hand.  It’s the self righteous indignation about earmarking that has gotten out of hand. It used to be about bringing home the pork; today the farmyard is emptied of its livestock.  But there is an unreasonable demand for purity by tea party adherents and Republican leadership. Yes, but there definitely are bad earmarks and that’s got to stop.  But there is nothing bad about helping your district get funds for needed sewer lines. Something needs to be done.  Yes, something needs to be done.

Okay, okay.  So your head can spin.  What does this have to do with the MTS?

You will have to read the next post.  Here’s a clue…WRDA.    Pbea

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Good Luck, Mr. Chairman.

In Infrastructure, Leadership, MTS Policy, Politics, Surface Transportation Policy on November 17, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Capitol Hill institution is a phrase that some incoming freshmen Members may not appreciate or find at all useful.  After all, some of them are arriving with the intent to de-institutionalize the place.

Democrat Jim Oberstar was de-institutionalized on Election Day.  He lost his re-election bid as did some other senior congressmen, including two other committee chairs.  Gene Taylor (D-MS) of the Seapower Subcommittee was one.

The chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is both an institution and a creature of one, where he spent 36 years representing his Minnesota district.  He started on Capitol Hill in the early 1960s as a staffer for an earlier iteration of that committee.  His remarks the other day to reporters (as reported by Sarah Abruzzese of E&E) reflect a perspective born in another time that looks out of place in the litmus-test politics of today.

“I think you will see coming in a lack of institutional understanding and also it appears a lack of willingness to follow seasoned leaders,” Oberstar said.

That’s speculation on his part but not without cause.  A real question giving those of us here pause is how well the 112th Congress will function and, therefore, govern.  Many of us end the 111th Congress with doubtful expectations for the next one.  (Paul Page of the Journal of Commerce wonders about the prospects for governing also.)

Not to suggest it is the center of the policy universe but in the transportation sector there is much at stake.  Here are three instances.  Long pending aviation program and policy legislation has been immobilized and needs to reach the President’s desk.  Likewise, the significant surface transportation “reauthorization” legislation—to include reforms that hopefully will make up for the excesses and diversions of SAFETEA-LU—is overdue and guaranteed to take at least another year to address, if we are so lucky.  Whether this next “TEA” bill will contain the multi-modal sensibility, including marine elements, that many of us look for, is one of the consequential unknowns.  And speaking about bills that are rarely on time, how will the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program–the basis for navigation infrastructure and commerce since the nation’s founding days–be made to function well in the next decades if Congress does not take up water resource (WRDA) legislsation?

There are bigger fish to fry in this town, of course – the government’s off-balance fiscal policy, the economy, and our international presence. But let’s consider the prospects on a smaller and more easily understood scale of those, nonetheless significant, challenges that face the transportation and public works panels of the House and Senate.  There is much to do in part because not much has been done over the years to address the nation’s infrastructure deficit or to focus on neglected sectors like the U.S. maritime.   As for the incoming class, Jim Oberstar’s conjecture is reasonable.

Among the members-elect, “there is little appetite for or appreciation of the broader policy questions that the nation faces with transportation,” he said — emphasizing that this was his opinion from reading about election outcomes across the country.

***

[Oberstar] expressed admiration for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who served as the committee’s ranking member and is now almost certain to take over as chairman. “Mr. Mica and I developed over these four years a very close working relationship,” Oberstar said. “He and I were both quick to say we have disagreements on policy issues, but we found a way to mitigate those differences.”Oberstar listed multiple bills that the two parties were able to come to an agreement on and shepherd out of the committee, including a Water Resources and Development Act that successfully overcame a presidential veto, an Amtrak bill that the president signed, an aviation authorization bill (twice), and a Coast Guard authorization bill.

***

“I would have brought to the new Congress that history of cooperation and seeing and trusting, that’s even more important, trusting my partner in this process,” Oberstar said. “Going forward, you’ll have to rebuild all those personal relationships and committee structural relationships. And that will take time and will take something out of the process.”

How true.  While still holding out hope for what is to come, we will miss Jim Oberstar, the institution and that diminishing breed.   Good luck, Chairman Mica.   Pbea

Happy National Public Works Week…or Not

In Federal Government, Politics on March 31, 2010 at 7:52 pm

The press release on the committee website speaks of a “slap to the face” by House Republicans delivered to “thousands of public works professionals across the nation.”

House Republicans Oppose Honoring Public Works Professionals; Republican partisan politics sink National Public Works Week resolution heads the release.

These days in Washington partisan shots and tiffs are so commonplace as not to be worth noting.  But since this appeared on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee website I thought it worth a brief mention if only to confirm what we already know.  Nowadays even a committee known for bipartisan cooperation is a meeting ground for campaign year smackdowns.

It’s not that disagreements and raised voices are unknown in this committee.  Put Davis-Bacon on the table and you’ll see party and regional differences.

During this 111th Congress the economic stimulus measure–the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 or ARRA–was the high profile target of the GOP leadership and it continues to be.  And given how politicized it has become for all we know the subject resolution may have been a Democrats’ set-up for their Republican colleagues.

During the brief floor debate on House Res. 1125 the ranking Republican on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, John Duncan of Tennessee, spoke in support of the resolution and called on his colleagues to vote for it.   And why not?  This is apple pie on the legislative menu.

Sometime after Duncan’s remarks and the vote taken later that day someone higher up the Republican ladder must have read the resolution.  The word went out –Republicans should vote no.  Which is what they did, Duncan included.

All but one Democrat–Gene Taylor of Mississippi–voted for it.  Not the two-thirds affirmation required under the fast track “suspension of the rules” the 249 to 172 vote was insufficient to pass the resolution.

The release from Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) explained* that the GOP leaders opposed the resolution because of favorable references to ARRA.  You know–projects started, jobs created.  So the word went out. Vote no.  Probably the decision was made even easier as the resolution sponsor and floor manager was Rep.Tom Perriello (D-VA), a very vulnerable and GOP-targeted freshman Democrat.   (*There is no mention of this matter on the minority’s website.)

This year even the 50th anniversary of National Public Works Week is something to disagree over.    Pbea