Sunday, September 27, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Transportation Committee

Welcome to the 23rd installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies.

This week's entry discusses the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. This is an authorizing committee that has the initial authority over the nation's public works projects. This authority encompasses everything from repaving highways to parts of the Clean Water Act to the government involvement in the Katrina rebuilding effort.


This is a huge committee, which is not at all surprising. There is not a district in the county that could not use public works projects like highways, levees, bridges, railroads, and public buildings. Citizens pay taxes for these things and and expect results. To put it more cynically, this is the committee where members can get their pet issues authorized and thus take the credit at election time. If you are on the authorizing committee, there is a better chance of your project getting approved. As a result, this is a very attractive committee assignment.

Instead of wasting a lot of space listing every member, the committee members are listed on the web page. Take a peek and see if your congresscritter is on the committee. James Oberstar of Minnesota is the chair and John Mica of Florida is the ranking member.


Here is the formal statement of the committee's jurisdiction:

* Coast Guard, including lifesaving service, lighthouses, lightships, ocean derelicts, and the Coast Guard Academy.
* Federal management of emergencies and natural disasters.
* Flood control and improvement of rivers and harbors.
* Inland waterways.
* Inspection of merchant marine vessels, lights and signals, lifesaving equipment, and fire protection on such vessels.
* Navigation and laws relating thereto, including pilotage.
* Registering and licensing of vessels and small boats.
* Rules and international arrangements to prevent collisions at sea.
* The Capitol Building and the Senate and House Office Buildings.
* Construction or maintenance of roads and post roads (other than appropriations therefor).
* Construction or reconstruction, maintenance, and care of buildings and grounds of the Botanic Garden, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution.
* Merchant marine (except for national security aspects thereof).
* Purchase of sites and construction of post offices, customhouses, Federal courthouses, and Government buildings within the District of Columbia.
* Oil and other pollution of navigable waters, including inland, coastal, and ocean waters.
* Marine affairs, including coastal zone management, as they relate to oil and other pollution of navigable waters.
* Public buildings and occupied or improved grounds of the United States generally.
* Public works for the benefit of navigation, including bridges and dams (other than international bridges and dams).
* Related transportation regulatory agencies.
* Roads and the safety thereof.
* Transportation, including civil aviation, railroads, water transportation, transportation safety (except automobile safety), transportation infrastructure, transportation labor, and railroad retirement and unemployment (except revenue measures related thereto).
* Water power.

Note that the Coast Guard is a department within the Department of Homeland Security and the House Homeland Security Committee has some jurisdiction over the Coast Guard as well.

Authorizations vs. Appropriations

Transportation and Infrastructure is an authorizing committee, meaning that they approve projects and set spending limits on the projects. No project can proceed until the money to do the projects is included in the relevant appropriations bill and the Appropriations Committee and the relevant subcommittee have jurisdiction over the actual expenditure. Naturally, these bills also have to be approved by the full House and Senate as well.

Identifying projects

Believe it or not, decisions on which projects to authorize are not solely made within the Beltway Bubble with no regard to the needs of the districts. The local needs filter up to the Congressional level and through the Executive Branch bureaucracy with varying levels of effectiveness.

Here is an example using agencies with which I am familiar. Assume that there is a need for a federal highway project in Pennsylvania's Northern Tier. Citizens can contact this agency or go to one of their occasional public hearings intended to accept input on local needs:

NTRPDC is the regional transportation coordinator and liaison between PennDOT and our communities. Getting approved for transportation improvement projects can be a time consuming and detailed process and we help make the process more manageable.

If the project in question is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, then PennDOT and the state legislature will decide if and when the project moves ahead. If the U.S. Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over a project -- if it deals with the Interstate system, for example -- PennDOT would work with US DOT and the members of the state's delegation to Congress to get it on the agenda.

This was exactly what happened with the project to upgrade parts of US Route 15 in Pennsylvania and New York to Interstate status (again, I am very familiar with this particular project). If you click on the link, you will see that the road has been designated the Bud Shuster Highway. Shuster is a former Republican Representative from Pennsylvania's 9th District who chaired this committee for the final six years of his term. He was a champion of highway projects and developed a reputation as the "go to guy" to get highway projects approved. (His son, Bill, now represents the district,sits on this committee and chairs a subcommittee.)

Of course, citizen pressure helps, too. As much as we want to deny it, every time we try to influence the government, we are lobbyists. The real distinction is between real grassroots efforts and the major Washington lobby shops that represent corporate interests to the detriment of citizens. Continuing with the Route 15/I99 example, a regional lobbying group, The Route 15 Coalition, has been lobbying the state and federal government for decades to keep the project rolling.

Committee priorities for 2009

You can read committee's full set of legislative priorities in this .pdf file. The stimulus money, they point out, will help relieve some of the backlog of projects in the near future. A few highlights include:

1. Authorizing the year's "surface transportation" (i.e. highways and mass transit) programs for the year.

2. Re-authorization of the FAA. The Senate has yet to get around to voting on this, but the deadline has been extended until Dec. 31. More information here (.pdf).

3. Address $2.5 billion worth of renovations needed at various Smithsonian museums.

4. Look into building more buildings for federal offices rather than renting space and making existing buildings more energy efficient.

5. Consider a water resources development act.

6. Address waste in emergency recovery efforts, particularly in the Gulf region.

7. High speed rail.

8. Levee and dam safety.

9. Address questions about Global Warming and the impact of automobiles.

10: Reform of the Coast Guard's Deep Water Procurement program. The bill would provide additional oversight (.pdf) on a program that will cost $24 billion over 20 years.

Hearings and Pending Legislation

Note: The full list of hearings is here

The next hearing for the committee will examine "Final Breakthrough on the Billion Dollar Katrina Infrastructure Logjam." What timing! It has only been 49 months since the storm hit (although, in fairness, the Republicans were in charge for the first half of that time). Other upcoming hearings will focus on topics like the emergency alert system, the Coast Guard's search and rescue mission, protection and restoration of the Long Island Sound, and the Clean Water Act (the committee has jurisdiction over pollution of navigable waterways).

FEMA Independence

This is a position that I argued for last year. Some excerpts:

Then came the Decider in Chief. Bush decided that his former campaign manager Joe Allbaugh should be in charge of FEMA. After 9/11, someone in the bureaucracy noticed that acts of terrorism will require disaster response. Therefore, FEMA should become one of 22 agencies incorporated into the new DHS. Notably, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin warned against the move.


Somewhere along the way, Allbaugh hired his old college buddy Mike "heckuva job" Brown, who was FEMA head when Katrina hit. There is evidence that Brown was more interested in his wardrobe and how much time he would have for dinner than actually responding to the disaster. There was plenty of time to prepare for the storm, but Brownie (who had zero emergency management experience) did nothing. As a result, the people in New Orleans were stranded in a football stadium and conference center for days without food, water, or sanitation.

Brown got canned and Congress started an investigation. Initially, there was a push to restore FEMA to its former status it enjoyed as an independent agency. This effort was led by Senators Hillary Clinton, Daniel Akaka, Barbara Boxer, Trent Lott, and Rep. Tom Davis a Republican from Virginia. After a lack of response by FEMA to some ice storms in Oklahoma in January, 2007 the very Republican delegation from that state called for FEMA to regain its independent status as well. This includes Coburn and Inhofe.

It turns out that the only time that FEMA was really effective was during the Clinton era when they were independent, focused on emergency management (instead of preparing for nuclear war as it did under Reagan) and had an emergency management expert leading the agency.

Now Oberstar is pushing for a bill (.pdf) to finally reestablish FEMA as an independent agency. The bill is HR 1174 and plenty more information is available on the committee's home page.

How's your state doing?

Just a quick thought here: Wyoming is Best, Florida Worst in Utilizing Recovery Act Highway Funding

“Our Committee has analyzed the percentage of Recovery Act highway formula funds that have been put out to bid, are under contract, and are underway. Over the past five months, most states have moved forward aggressively to use the highway funds to create and sustain family-wage jobs. According to our analysis, Wyoming has performed the best, with New Hampshire and Oklahoma close behind,” said Rep. Oberstar. “Unfortunately, a few states have fallen far behind in putting their Recovery Act highway formula funds to work. Florida has been the slowest state in utilizing its funding allocation, while Hawaii and South Carolina rank 50th and 49th respectively.”

More information on recovery act transparency rules are available here.


There are six subcommittees under the full committees. The names of the committees are fairly self explanatory and each one has a link to its recent hearings.

Aviation: Jerry F. Costello, Illinois is the chair and Thomas E. Petri, Wisconsin is the ranking member.

Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation: Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland is the chair and Frank LoBiondo, New Jersey is the ranking member.

Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management : Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia, is the chair and Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida is the ranking member. Delegates from DC and the territories may vote in and chair committees, including the Committee of the Whole, but not on final passage of bills in the House.

Highways and Transit: Peter DeFazio, Oregon is the chair and John J. Duncan, Jr., Tennessee is the ranking member.

Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials: Corrine Brown, Florida is the chair and Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania is the ranking member (like father, like son).

Water Resources and Environment : Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas is the chair and John Boozman, Arkansas is the ranking member.

In case anyone is under any sort of delusions about it, the subcommittee has posted this (.pdf) report: Stagnant Waters: The Legacy of the Bush Administration on the Clean Water Act

"The Bush Administration has presided over the slow, but steady, dismantling of the Clean Water Act."

I will leave it on that note.

For more information, see my past work:

Joint Committee on Taxation
House Oversight Committee
Conference Committees
Senate and House Budget Committees
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Senate and House Armed Services Committees
Small Business Committees
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
House Education and Labor Committee
Senate Finance Committee
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

This entry is posted at Congress Matters, Daily Kos, Progressive Electorate and my own blog.

No comments: