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Capitol Watch: Congress’ Long Transportation To-Do-List

By Anna Denecke, Associate, Blakey & Agnew

It might not feel like summer in Washington but Congress is nonetheless barreling towards August recess. A number of transportation-related items lay unfinished on the Congressional to-do-list and the House and Senate are working overtime to see that progress is made on these bills before they leave town in mid-July.

First up is the FY17 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) bill. Appropriations bills, of which there are twelve total, fund the various branches of the government for the duration of the federal fiscal year. While many of the programs in the recently-passed Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act are funded through the Highway Trust Fund, and therefore not subject to appropriations, THUD does allocate important dollars to various United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) modal administrations and also serves to authorize the TIGER grant program.

In recent history, Congress has been unable to pass THUD as a stand-alone piece of legislation, instead resorting to combining all twelve appropriations bills into a single omnibus, which is usually passed by September 30, the end of the fiscal year. This year, both the House and the Senate are bullish on returning to regular order and passing appropriations bills individually. To demonstrate commitment to regular order, the Senate introduced their FY17 THUD proposal on April 21. The legislation provides $16.9 billion in discretionary appropriations for USDOT, including $550 million for the ninth round of TIGER. At time of print, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) was moving aggressively to schedule a final vote on the legislation. The House introduced their FY17 THUD proposal on May 18. The legislation authorizes $19.2 billion in discretionary appropriations for USDOT and includes $450 million for TIGER. The House bill was reported favorably by the subcommittee with jurisdiction over USDOT funding on May 18 and now awaits action from the full Appropriations Committee.

While it’s possible that both chambers could pass THUD before exiting Washington for August recess, a number of controversial provisions have slowed forward progress on the bill. Some, including funding to combat the spread of the Zika virus, are not related to transportation, but language aimed at changing the trucker Hours of Service regulations has many concerned. The White House issued a veto threat over the Senate THUD, citing displeasure with the Hours of Service provision in particular.

Also on the Congressional transportation to-do-list

is the long-delayed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization. In February, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act. In addition to reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration until FY22, the AIRR Act proposes privatizing air traffic control by transiting oversight of the system to a private, non-profit entity. Shuster’s bill was reported favorably by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by a vote of 34 to 25 on February 11, but has not been taken up on the House floor.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, Sen. Thune (R-SD) introduced his own version of a long-term FAA reauthorization bill on March 9, which reauthorizes the FAA and related programs through FY17 and does not attempt to make reforms to air traffic control. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill on April 19, by a vote of 95 to 3. The House can either take up the Senate version or try to move forward with Chairman Shuster’s AIRR Act and conference the two proposals together.

Lawmakers are also bullish on passing a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) before they adjourn for August recess. Traditionally, Washington passes WRDA biennially. The legislation serves to authorize water projects for study, planning and development by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. WRDA also acts as a vehicle for Corps’-related policy changes.

On April 26, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Boxer (D-CA) introduced the Water Resources Development Act of 2016. The bill authorizes 25 Army Corps projects and provides additional resources to maintain drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. The House, meanwhile, is holding hearings on the topic. Chairman Shuster indicated this month he plans to have WRDA on the House floor by June.

Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and communications consulting firm based in Washington, DC.