Lawmakers returning from a two-week recess Monday may find that the debate over infrastructure looks a lot like routine congressional discussion of transportation bills.
Congress will go to work on aviation reauthorization and waterway and port projects, setting aside a comprehensive infrastructure plan favored by the administration for more discussions.
President Donald Trump said over the break that infrastructure legislation would likely need to be split into several bills and wouldn’t move until after November’s midterm elections. That was followed by the news on April 3 that DJ Gribbin, the White House’s point person on infrastructure, was leaving his position. The two moves showed that the administration recognizes what members of Congress have all but announced: the White House plan doesn’t have much chance of passage this year.
The sweeping overhaul Trump promised on the campaign trail has receded into the distance. And the finger-pointing has begun.
Trump blamed Democrats for not working with him on an infrastructure package. He said they’d be more willing to participate after the midterm elections, but Senate Democrats have already released their own plan that calls for significantly more federal spending than Trump proposed.
Watch: What to Expect, and Not Expect, From the House After Recess
The administration plan set “the parameters for the discussion,” said Brian Pallasch, the managing director of government relations at the American Society of Civil Engineers. “It was always going to be something that Congress was going to have to do. It wasn’t going to be the president alone doing this. So, now it’s Congress’ turn to decide what they’re going to do with this.”
Gribbin consistently said his proposal was the start of a conversation, not meant as a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer.
The White House released a 55-page proposal in February that called for spending $200 billion in federal money to spur $1.5 trillion from all levels of government and the private sector over 10 years, coupled with changes to regulations regarding permits on projects.
But the proposal found little enthusiasm in Congress. Some lawmakers credited the administration with spotlighting the issue, but the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill seemed to go out of its way to emphasize differences with the Trump plan. The omnibus raised spending on infrastructure by more than $10 billion, but instead of putting that money into new grant programs as Gribbin had proposed, the omnibus added it to previously authorized programs that the president’s budget request had asked to eliminate or cut.
Aviation, water first
Lawmakers say they are still working on a broad plan, but transportation leaders’ immediate task is to meet legislative deadlines for existing programs. Aviation authorization expires Sept. 30. And a House Republican leader wants Congress to keep up its record of reauthorizing water programs.
Gribbin’s departure won’t upend that agenda. His job was to produce an infrastructure plan that matched Trump’s campaign rhetoric focused on improving U.S. roads, bridges, airports, the energy grid, broadband and other categories of infrastructure.
His position overseeing the White House’s infrastructure policy as a part of the National Economic Council was unique, according to advocates for infrastructure spending. But Gribbin was not seen as the chief salesman on Capitol Hill, said Ed Mortimer, vice president for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The White House legislative affairs staff on infrastructure will continue to make the administration’s case to Congress, and Alex Hergott of the Council on Environmental Quality will lead efforts to rewrite regulatory laws, White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom said.
Unlike Gribbin, Hergott is a former Hill staffer. He worked for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during passage of the last surface transportation authorization bill, enacted in December 2015.
Meanwhile, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders have begun to work on bipartisan legislation independent of the White House proposal, according to Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania and ranking member Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon. The two met last month and “had a great conversation,” Shuster said, but he said he wasn’t ready to discuss details of those talks.
Shuster has said any infrastructure effort must be bipartisan, a view that is shared among lawmakers and interest groups.
In the Senate, the Democratic proposal, touted by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, provides a counterpoint to the administration’s plan, Mortimer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said.
“At this moment, Sen. Schumer has an alternative infrastructure proposal out there that has some very different pay-fors and some different ways to go about it,” he said. “We have always believed, though, at the end of the day that if you’re going to get something enacted into law, it has to be bipartisan.”
DeFazio has said his support would depend on the level of federal funding involved, adding that he’s uninterested in policy changes without more robust spending.
Shuster has indicated he’d favor raising federal fuel taxes to pay for new spending and to shore up the ailing Highway Trust Fund — a priority for transportation groups off the Hill. But Shuster is retiring at the end of the current Congress, and Republicans have shown no appetite to raise the gas tax.
For its part, the administration has pointedly stayed neutral on the question of a gas tax increase. And White House neutrality would likely not be enough to get such a tax through Congress. DeFazio and Shuster have said such a heavy political lift could occur only with strong presidential support.
Trump’s support would be all the more critical because House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and other congressional Republican leaders have said the issue is a nonstarter.
Bits and pieces
Trump and Ryan appear to be on the same page when it comes to breaking up infrastructure policy into several bills rather than a broad, singular legislative push. But when Ryan cites the Water Resources Development Act and the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, he is pointing to what was going to happen anyway — with or without a broad infrastructure bill.
Shuster has said he considers WRDA a priority. It would be the third consecutive two-year authorization of water projects that he has led. Having helped enact 2014 and 2016 versions of the law, Shuster has said he considers a two-year cycle critical to providing certainty to those interested in water infrastructure such as ports, locks and dams.
“It seems to me that Mr. Shuster wants to finish that in his tenure here, so that probably helps us,” Pallasch of the American Society of Civil Engineers said.
Shuster also seems eager to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization. He conceded early this year that his long-standing and controversial proposal to remove air traffic control from the FAA would not succeed, and said he would work on a bill that would provide long-term stability for the agency. The spinoff language was the biggest obstacle to passing a long-term bill.