House Committee, White House Prepare for Highway Bill’s Consideration

Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Biden
Shelley Moore Capito by Al Drago/Bloomberg News; Joe Biden by Evan Vucci/AP

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The White House intends to schedule meetings with transportation leaders next week before the congressional committees’ consideration of multiyear highway policy bills.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated she anticipates President Joe Biden will meet with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and other key policymakers, for negotiations on infrastructure policy.

Biden has been promoting his $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan, meant as a transformative proposal consisting of comprehensive surface transportation measures, and climate change policies. The corporate tax rate would increase to 28% from 21% to fund many of the plan’s components.

“The president believes Congress can and should move forward with multiple policies at the same time,” Psaki said May 5. “I know those members who are playing central role, roles in these negotiations, and obviously they can speak to the frequency of the discussions and the status of them and we defer to them; they will be important participants, of course, in any outcome of negotiations around the American Jobs Plan.”

Capito and her Republican colleagues recently unveiled a nearly $600 billion surface transportation-centric blueprint as an alternative to Biden’s plan. She has expressed a willingness to meet at the White House.

“Let’s get serious about really trying to reach a negotiated infrastructure package,” said the senator May 3. She is the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “I’m very encouraged by this. I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues and certainly talking constantly with the White House and others. I just feel like there is a real desire and will for us to work together on something we’ve traditionally worked together on through many, many years.”

On the House side, several transportation policymakers have announced funding requests for projects in their districts as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee readies its consideration of a highway policy bill this month.

The panel intends to review the funding requests during its consideration of a legislative update to the 2015 FAST Act federal highway law. The law’s provisions expire at the end of September. Democratic leaders point to the legislative update as being a pillar of Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure agenda.

The requests are part of the committee’s revived practice of considering member-designated transportation projects, commonly referred to as earmarks. These requests from lawmakers, including the panel’s leaders, range in size.

Per the funding requests, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the committee chairman and ranking member, respectively, are seeking approval for projects related to freight and commuter corridors, ports and multiuse features.

Specifically, DeFazio announced he is seeking approval for 10 projects, such as $4.5 million for the Port of Coos Bay, as well as $1.5 million for the River Road-Santa Clara pedestrian and bicycle bridge in Eugene, Ore.

Graves announced he is seeking $19 million for a safe streets and sidewalks plan in Excelsior Springs, Mo., and $5.5 million for Interstate 35 improvements in Kearney, Mo.

At a hearing last month, DeFazio reiterated his support for member-designated projects, or earmarks. “I appreciate the committee’s ranking member Sam Graves for our ongoing dialogue and for working with me on including member-designated projects in our surface [transportation] bill,” said the chairman. “Just like I know my district better than someone at a federal agency and am held accountable by my constituents, so do the members.”

The chairman continued, “I know that members of our committee share a lot of goals, regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, and we have a proven track record of achieving results.”

Other notable requests include $1 billion for upgrades along the I-26 and I-526 interchange in North Charleston, S.C., sponsored by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.); $2 million for the Berkshire Valley Road Truck Circulation project in Kenvil, N.J., sponsored by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.); and $3.5 million for the Hamilton Road East-West Connection project in Bloomington, Ill., sponsored by Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Darin LaHood (R-Ill.).

As Davis explained in a letter to the committee’s leadership: “The funding is designated for the final connection of a 7.2-mile east-west transportation improvement project, providing safer, easier roadway travel.”

Democratic leaders during this session of Congress revived the legislative earmarking practice, suggesting that doing that would facilitate adoption of comprehensive transportation legislation. Earmarks, which were banned in Congress about a decade ago amid controversy, are proposals to legislation specifying a funding amount. Earmarks sometimes bypass debate in committees with jurisdiction over certain projects.

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