Frustration Mounts for House Democrats on Infrastructure

By Shaun Courtney

House Democrats want legislative action—not more hearings—to address the needs of the nation’s infrastructure, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member said during an Oct. 11 hearing.

The Highways and Transit Subcommittee hearing was the latest in a series held by every Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, save Oversight and Investigations, under the “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America” mantle.

“We can do this in a bipartisan way, but all we’re doing is talking,” ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. “That’s all we are doing is just talking while the country crumbles.”

The committee should take the lead, put out proposals, and “force the House to act,” DeFazio said.

Republican leaders, however, are looking to the Trump administration for a proposal—much to the frustration of their Democratic colleagues. The White House hasn’t provided any recent public updates or details of its promised $1trillion infrastructure proposal.

The hearings are a chance to prepare in advance to the administration’s guidance, subcommittee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) told reporters after the hearing.

“Obviously this is an administration priority and we’re going to wait for them to come forward with their ideas and their priorities,” Graves said.

Divisions

Committee members disagreed at the hearing over how to fund infrastructure.

Democrats like DeFazio and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), want to see more direct federal investment.

The White House has talked sufficiently about infrastructure, Norton said, but she wants to see a commitment to addressing the country’s serious infrastructure needs.

“Let’s get some money on the table,” she said.

Several of the panelists before the committee also called for a strong federal investment in infrastructure.

“While we are encouraged by the president’s goals for infrastructure, we have been deeply disappointed by budget proposals from his administration that appear to undermine those goals,” testified panelist Peter Rogoff, chief executive of Greater Seattle’s Sound Transit.

Direct federal investment can’t be the only solution, said full-committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). Shuster said he doesn’t want to kick the can down the road and stick future generations with the bill for today’s infrastructure.

“One of the key components is that we have to figure out a long-term funding stream,” Shuster said. “I’m open to everything.”Shuster and other Republicans are interested in pursuing public-private partnerships and infrastructure asset recycling, as funding “tools.”

Gas Tax?

“One thing I think we can all agree on is we need to fix the Highway Trust Fund,” Shuster said.

The trust fund is supported primarily through taxes on gasoline and diesel, which haven’t increased since 1993 and aren’t indexed to inflation.

The Trump administration has signaled it could be open to raising the federal gas tax to help pay for infrastructure. The issue creates divides not just along political lines, but also geographic.

Shuster called the gas tax “regressive,” but said he also sees rural areas like the one he represents benefiting from the levy.

“We can’t build an interstate highway through rural Pennsylvania or rural Wyoming unless the folks from the urban areas, their dollars are coming out there to make this country connected,” Shuster said.

Graves was less bullish.

“You’re not going to see a gas tax increase,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen. It’s a reality.”

Are We There Yet?

The administration has long promised a proposal in the fall and more recently said it would come after a major rewrite of the tax code.

Shuster told reporters Oct. 3 the White House may have a new list of principles on infrastructure the week of Oct. 9, but Graves made the timeline seem more fluid.

He faulted delays in the Senate in confirming nominations to key agencies for the delays.

“I’ve talked to [Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao],” Graves said. “They feel pretty good about having getting everybody that they need to start working on this. It could be this week, it could be next week, it possibly could be the week after.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.