The Transportation Lobby

Published — July 20, 2009 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Following the money for construction, campaigns

Introduction

Critical deadlines are looming to renew funding for transportation projects, but there are differing approaches to the problem in the House and Senate, and different committee structures for dealing with the issue. That may explain some campaign fundraising disparities as well.

In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works committee handles transportation, but shares jurisdiction over the subject with two other committees, Banking and Commerce. Over in the House, though, all the transportation action is with the Transportation & Infrastructure committee. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the House committee’s leadership is far more reliant on the transportation and construction sectors for campaign cash than its counterparts with the Senate Environment and Public Works panel. Especially since that House committee wants to provide more cash for a longer period of time.

According to our analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics, leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee has received more than a quarter of its total campaign and PAC money from the transportation and construction sectors since 2005, compared to less than five percent received from those sectors by its leadership counterparts on the Senate environment and public works panel.

The transportation issue isn’t garnering the headlines of, say, health care or global warming legislation, but it’s the subject of intense jockeying on Capitol Hill, and the clock is ticking. Federal funding authorization for surface projects like roads, bridges, and rails is set to expire at the end of September, after a six-year run, in theory requiring Congress to reauthorize the program — separate from the stimulus program — for the next six years. However, the highway trust fund providing cash for those projects is set to run dry even earlier — around Labor Day.

Instead of drafting a six-year reauthorization, the Senate environment panel passed an 18-month extension of existing law last week — an extension that requires an additional $20 billion to shore up the highway trust fund. Passing the extension theoretically puts off the question of a larger reauthorization bill off until after the midterm elections. Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, following the lead of the Obama administration, called the extension “the responsible thing to do.”

But over in the House transportation committee, ranking minority member John Mica, a Florida Republican, charges that the Senate action goes back on an agreement to move on his committee’s admittedly more expensive bill — a full, six-year reauthorization. Mica blasted the Senate panel’s 18-month extension as “a betrayal of the code that we work under in the Congress.” Both Boxer, up for reelection next year, and the White House seem loathe to raise the gas tax, which would be required to pay for the House version of the bill.

The House transportation committee has ramped up its rhetoric in recent weeks to emphasize the job creation opportunities presented by its bill. Committee leaders donned hardhats and shovels in the committee room upon release of the bill, while chairman James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, directed frustrations at the White House, labeling the president’s economic advisers as out of touch with America’s workforce.

Late last week, Oberstar’s committee called representatives from the transportation and construction industries to testify on high unemployment rates and the need for a new bill to provide funding certainty for long-term projects. Those groups figure to keep applying the heat for swift passage of a long-term reauthorization, not a brief extension. Many, including the American Trucking Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are even supporting a gas tax increase to get it done.The tug of war will continue this week. The Senate Commerce committee takes up its own portion of the extension Tuesday, while House leaders will testify before the Ways & Means committee Thursday on alternate ways to pay for their plan.

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