Thursday, September 22, 2011

Incremental Steps Forward

The mass media may have been abuzz over the recent setback when the House failed to consider a temporary continuing resolution for the federal government's spending (for example, the Los Angeles Times reported "House rejects government funding bill as shutdown looms"). Reality hasn't yet been quite so dire. Consider the following bits that have taken place on Capitol Hill in the past few days:

1. A short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU was signed into law on Sept. 16. It sustains most federal highway and transit spending authority at current levels through March 31, 2012. Note that this is an authorization, not an appropriation. Federal funding for transit and highway projects are dependent on the annual appropriations bills.

2. The Senate Appropriations Committee just approved its version of a FY 2012 Transportation-HUD spending bill that would fund most federal transit programs at close to their FY 2011 levels. This is in contrast to the transportation spending bill that moved through the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month, in which most federal transit and highway spending would be cut by more than 30 percent.

3. The House has just passed a short-term extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which would sustain its spending authority at current levels through December 31, 2011.

4. The Senate Appropriations Committee also has cleared its version of a FY 2012 Labor/Health & Human Services/Education appropriations bill. Other spending bills also are advancing, albeit in fits and starts, through the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

With respect to the annual appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year, the overwhelming assumption is that they will be folded into some form of an omnibus appropriations act, which has become the more common way Congress has handled its control of federal purse-strings in recent years, but the tendency is to base these catch-all bills on whatever has been done to date with individual bills, so the farther along they are, the greater sense we would have of what to expect.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Congress: Moving Right Along?

This week, Congress keeps racing the clock, moving down parallel tracks in terms of FY 2012 appropriations and the need to extend (and eventually reauthorize) the SAFETEA-LU highway and transit legislation. All of this is supposed to be done by September 30, of course.

In today's news, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee reported out a four-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, which, if agreed to by the other Senate committees of jurisdiction, the full Senate, and the House, would tide surface transportation authorizations over through January 31, 2012. Conceivably simple, even this glide path is said to be facing numerous obstacles, according to DC Streetsblog and other sources.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee drafted its version of FY 2012 spending, which includes a 30 percent reduction in funds for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and its programs. The draft bill provides for a tiny increase in Section 5309 funding for "new starts" and "small starts," but dictates that these funds are only available for small starts and for honoring those Full Funding Grant Agreements currently in place for new starts. The cuts all would be taken, presumably pro rata, in FTA formula grants, planning and research. In a bit of explanation on its website, the appropriators say "the Committee is prepared to support a higher formula bus spending level should a new, multi-year authorization bill be enacted."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Congress: Getting Down to Business?

In theory, there's a lot of work that Congress needs to do this month, relative to transportation.

The current extension of the SAFETEA-LU surface transportation authorization expires on Sept 30, along with the federal government's authority to collect the motor fuel taxes and other fees that support the nation's highway and transit funding programs. While the White House and Transportation Secretary LaHood and among those who've have raised the level of concern about what could happen if these authorizations were allowed to lapse, the prevailing sentiments from Congress, including House Transportation & Infrastructure committee chair John Mica [R-Fla.], are that there will be another short extension of current authorizations, which may be followed up by an honest-to-gosh reauthorization effort (drafting of this legislation already is taking place in the Senate, and is being discussed in earnest in the House). This week, in fact, a short-term SAFETEA-LU extension is working its way through the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

The Capitol Hill news media are going to be paying a lot of attention to the "Super Committee" (officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) that is tasked with recommending debt and deficit containment measures that would influence federal budgeting for FY 2013 and beyond, if all goes according to plan. Despite the certain media spotlight over the ruminations and actions of this committee, bear in mind that their work is not expected to affect FY 2012 spending.

Meanwhile, action on FY 2012 appropriations is happening, a little bit on the edge of the spotlight. At this point (especially with that fiscal year beginning in just over three weeks), the anticipated end result will be some form of catch-all, or "omnibus" spending measure for the year, as has been the case in almost every recent federal fiscal year's appropriations. However, the race is on in both the House and Senate appropriations committees to move as far and fast as they can on next year's appropriations, as their work, no matter how far along it's progressed, will inform the final product on FY 2012 spending.

With respect to those FY 2012 appropriations most directly affecting public transportation and its partners in coordination, here's this week's status report, as reported in the Library of Congress' "Thomas" web site:

  • Transportation-HUD: House appropriations subcommittee markup set for Sept 8; no Senate action
  • Labor-HHS-Education: possible House appropriations subcommittee consideration Sept 9; no Senate action
  • Military Construction-VA: H.R. 2055 passed House June 14, passed Senate July 20, awaiting House-Senate conference or negotiation
  • Agriculture: H.R. 2112 passed House June 16; Senate Appropriations full committee markup set for Sept 7
  • Homeland Security: H.R. 2017 passed House June 2; Senate Appropriations full committee markup set for Sept 7
  • Commerce-Justice-Science: H.R. 2596 reported out of House Appropriations committee July 13; no Senate action
  • Interior-Environment: H.R. 2584 reported out of House Appropriations committee July 13; no Senate action