Congress Examines Trade and Transportation Agency Spending Proposals

Congress Examines Trade and Transportation Agency Spending Proposals

As Capitol Hill debates whether and how to help U.S. companies be more competitive in the global marketplace, hearings are taking place in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on President Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY2016). Competitiveness was on the agenda earlier this week as, on March 3, the Senate Commerce Committee hosted Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to discuss the budget requests for the agencies they lead.

Citing increased population, economic activity, freight and travel (a “tidal wave”) over the next 30 years, Foxx asked the Committee if the U.S. will “choke on our own growth or are we going to build for it?”  For FY2016, Foxx’s agency requested a 23 percent ($22.2 billion) increase in spending authority over the amount approved for the current year.  The centerpiece of the $94.7 billion proposal is the GROW AMERICA Act, a six-year surface transportation bill that provides “a comprehensive plan to repair and modernize the currently outdated highway infrastructure on which our Nation depends to move people and freight safely and efficiently.” Most of the funds requested, $51.3 billion, would pass through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to maintain and improve highways.

When the GROW AMERICA Act was first proposed in 2014, Congress choked on the challenge and merely approved a ten-month extension of the 2012 highway law known as MAP-21. The extension will run out at the end of May unless Congress acts to reform and diversify its funding sources, which are federal gasoline and diesel taxes with diminishing returns. Yes, tax reform is viewed as an essential step to solve our crumbling transportation infrastructure and help move us from the treadmill to the path forward.

The six-year timeframe would give states certainty not only to plan but also to bring some projects from planning to reality. Laws with life spans of ten months, or even two years, fail that test. Assuming resources would be found, the FY2016 proposal also includes a 58 percent increase to $158 million for FHWA’s Intelligent Transportation Systems activities, which helps deploy traffic information and control equipment and in which NEMA plays its part as subcontractor writing national standards for performance and interoperability of ITS equipment.

Shifting gears, Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) questioned Foxx at the hearing about a proposal to change labor law to prevent port workers from striking during contract negotiations and doing economic damage to importers and exporters.  Foxx declined to voice support for this idea, raised during the recent West Coast port labor negotiations and costly congestion.

For her part, Secretary Pritzker cited the request for funds to support the Commerce Department’s “Open for Business” agenda, of which the International Trade Administration (ITA) is a major component. ITA, which under the proposed budget would receive $497 million in spending authority for FY2016 (an 8 percent increase) has various programs to help create and identify opportunities for U.S. business to export goods and services.

Pritzker also called on Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority legislation and to give as much support as possible to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman as his agency tries to negotiate market opening trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and elsewhere.  USTR’s own request for FY2016 spending came in at $56 million, an increase of $2 million over the current year’s plan.

President Obama’s budget also requests a 25 percent increase in funding, to $1.1 billion, for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). As another arm of the Commerce Department, NIST administers diverse programs, including the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, to help U.S. businesses innovate and compete.

As noted above, Congress now holds the reins in the process to determine how much federal money is spent on enhancing U.S. competitiveness. Each House may consider a budget reconciliation bill as well as separate appropriations bills for transportation and trade agencies. As the summer approaches, NEMA acquire a better understanding of how viable the Administration’s spending proposals are in the eyes of Congress.

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