Politico: Pricey bills will test GOP promises

Nov 28, 2010
In The News

Republicans on the warpath against federal spending will soon be put to the test on three popular but expensive pork-laden bills for farms, highways and water projects.

The major infrastructure bills are all due for major updates in the 112th Congress, forcing difficult decisions on measures that lawmakers in the past found easy to trumpet back home but could be more difficult to sell given the deficit-busting rhetoric that Republicans just rode to victory.

Combined, the last iterations of the three giant omnibus proposals cost more than a half-trillion dollars, which would generate painful headlines for fiscal conservatives. But the bills would pay for everything from replacing decaying bridges to keeping farms in business. They are also alluring to lawmakers because they have something for virtually every state and every district.

The inherent contradiction between spending billions of dollars and cutting the budget already has conservatives equivocating.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a mandate to stop spending for roads or any other general purpose like that,” said Utah Sen.-elect Mike Lee. “There’s a mandate to adopt a balanced-budget amendment and to rein things in.”

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a favorite of the conservative tea party movement, said the anti-spending rhetoric heard on the campaign trail translates to the highway, water and farm bills. But she’s not ready to count any of them out, especially when there could be useful projects in individual districts.

“You don’t want to cut off your nose to spite your face,” she said. “That’d be foolish to do that. I think we can be grown-ups and not try to be cute about it and just really get down to the unglamorous, very real work of making tough decisions.”

The likely chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), plans to hold hearings “looking at how every penny is spent” in anticipation of writing a farm bill in 2012 to replace the current $288 billion, five-year plan. “The federal budget is still going to be tighter than anything we’ve seen in my 20 years up here,” Lucas said. “It’s going to [take] some tough decisions.

“When we have to write a farm bill, we’re going to have to write it with the money that will be available to us,” he added. “Who knows what it will be. But I’m almost certain it won’t be as much as the last farm bill.”

Even if lawmakers cut the overall price tag by a few million — or billion — dollars, paying for the measures is another problem, no more so than on the highway and transit bill.
Outgoing House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) floated a $500 billion bill, but his plan quickly failed because of concerns that it would come with a gas tax hike or a new system in which Americans are charged for every mile they drive. Those ideas went over like a flat tire. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is expected to chair the panel next year, has suggested using public-private partnerships and other financing alternatives.

The problem, Mica told POLITICO, is that many of the new congressmen have vowed not to hike taxes, curbing the ability to raise new revenue. “A lot of them have signed pledges for no new taxes,” Mica said of the incoming Republican freshmen. “And that’s fine. That fits in with what I want to do.”

But without the significant new revenues that would accompany a gas tax hike or a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, Mica and his fellow T&I Republicans will be forced to lower their sights well below the ambitious funding mark Oberstar had in mind — and possibly even below current funding levels, which have proved to be more than the revenues brought in by the current fuel tax rates.
“We’re going to have to do more with less,” he said.

The current highway law was approved in 2005 at $286.4 billion for six years, but it immediately became one of the major drivers for the recent anti-earmark campaign, symbolized by the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.

Also on the infrastructure side, members are preparing to tackle the next version of the Water Resources Development Act. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee met Wednesday for its latest round of hearings on a proposal that even politically polar opposites like Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) can find agreement on.

The previous version of the water bill, covering everything from beach nourishment to flood control and restoration of the Florida Everglades, made it into law despite a $23 billion price tag and President George W. Bush’s first veto. All three bills will be closely scrutinized as they come up for debate by the conservative activists who helped House Republicans regain power earlier this month.

“If we don’t stop and take a look at everything, and put the brakes on immediately, there’s not going to be any discussion about what we can do or can’t do,” Karen Winterling, president of the Howard County (Md.) Republican Club, said Monday during a tea party rally outside the Capitol. “We’re not going to be able to do anything. We’re going to have riots.”

But longtime stalwarts acknowledge they’re up against some powerful interests on and off Capitol Hill.

“Those are tough ones,” said Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, the conservative leader who has fought for years to try to ban earmarks in appropriations bills. “The farm bill, some of us have tried for years on a bipartisan way. That’s one that’s very difficult for people in the heartland to address.”

The Associated General Contractors of America, for example, has been lobbying GOP freshmen on the highway and water bills since the elections. Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the group, said his message to lawmakers is that infrastructure bills are good politics, especially in tough economic times. “I don’t know how it plays for an incoming Republican House member to say, ‘We’re going to hold up shipments of grain on the Missouri River,’” he said.

Republicans also can expect some pushback from Democrats. An Agriculture Department spokesman said the Obama administration is trying to relieve fiscal pressures on the next farm bill through “landmark concessions” from the crop insurance industry that equate to $4 billion in savings for deficit reduction. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is second in line to chair the Agriculture

Committee, said the three bills each have an important economic message. “We’ll need to get those things done,” she said. “There’s no question about it. Those are all about jobs. It’ll be interesting to see if [GOP] colleagues want to mark this.”

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