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House GOP seeks billions in cuts to rail, water infrastructure spending

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It took decades for Congress to deliver on its promise to pour new money into the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections.

Now, House Republicans are trying to slash some of the same funds.

A series of GOP bills to finance the federal government in 2024 would wipe out billions of dollars meant to repair the nation’s aging infrastructure, potentially undercutting a 2021 law that was one of Washington’s rare recent bipartisan achievements. The proposed cuts could hamstring some of the most urgently needed public-works projects across the country, from improving rail safety to reducing lead contamination at schools.

Some of the cuts would be particularly steep: Amtrak, for example, could lose nearly two-thirds of its annual federal funding next fiscal year if House Republicans prevail. That includes more than $1 billion in cuts targeting the highly trafficked and rapidly aging Northeast Corridor, which runs between Boston and Washington, prompting Amtrak’s chief to sound early alarms about service disruptions.

In recent days, Republicans have defended their approach as a fiscally responsible way to reduce the burgeoning federal debt. They’ve largely tried to extract the savings by slimming down federal agencies’ operating budgets next year, technically leaving intact the extra funding that lawmakers adopted in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

But the effect would be the same: The GOP bills would reduce the federal money available for repairs. The cuts would come at a time when the country is grappling with the real-life consequences of its own infrastructure failures, from train derailments in Ohio and Pennsylvania to the collapse of a key portion of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia last month.

“I guess no one reads newspapers,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (Ill.), the top Democrat on the appropriations panel that oversees transportation and other key infrastructure programs. “When big infrastructure issues are blowing up in our face, we’re doing the opposite.”

They opposed the infrastructure law. Now, some in the GOP court its cash.

The emerging House battle underscores the massive chasm between Democrats and Republicans over the nation’s fiscal health, only weeks after the two parties brokered what was thought to be a political truce.

In a deal to stave off a first-ever federal default, Biden worked out an agreement with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in June to pursue modest voluntary spending caps on federal agencies and programs starting in the 2024 fiscal year. In exchange, Republicans permitted lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling, allowing the United States to resume borrowing money to pay its bills.

Even as Republicans touted that vote as a victory, however, some in the party’s far-right flank signaled they planned to continue the fight. They pledged to force Democrats to accept massive spending cuts through the annual appropriations process that funds the government — or risk a shutdown if lawmakers fail to act by the Sept. 30 deadline.

So far, the standoff has largely simmered behind the scenes. In recent weeks, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, has worked methodically to process a dozen funding bills, which McCarthy on Monday said he hopes to start bringing to the chamber floor as soon as next week.

In a sign of the acrimonious debate to come, each of the House appropriations bills features sharp spending cuts that Democrats vehemently oppose — even targeting some federal infrastructure programs that until recently had enjoyed bipartisan support.

Two years after Congress approved $55 billion to improve the nation’s water supply, for example, House Republicans last week proposed to eliminate $1.7 billion from the two primary federal sources for drinking water and wastewater grants to states.

Those programs had received supplemental funding as part of the bipartisan infrastructure act. Rather than undo that law, the GOP bill would dramatically reduce the initiatives’ annual budgets, compared to what they received in the 2023 fiscal year, while underfunding a slew of other federal water infrastructure operations. That includes two programs to help schools and low-income communities reduce lead contamination, which together could receive about $85 million less next year than lawmakers previously had authorized, according to an analysis of data released in January 2022 by the Congressional Research Service.

“I’ll be real honest with you: If you’re looking for a pretty bill, this is not it,” acknowledged Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that produced the proposal, at a hearing last week.

“Cutting funding is never easy and can often be an ugly process … But with the nation’s debt in excess of $32 trillion and inflation at an unacceptable level, we have to do our jobs to rein in unnecessary federal spending,” he said.

After weeks of haggling, House appropriators are expected to finalize that bill this week. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), the top Democrat on the panel, described the spending measure in a recent hearing as “one of the most harmful attacks on America’s efforts to tackle climate change.”

Congress approves $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, sending measure to Biden for enactment

The proposed cuts to infrastructure spending come at a time when new federal money has started to flow more rapidly. The White House estimates it has announced about $225 billion in awards under the 2021 law, which has benefitted roughly 35,000 projects nationwide, a figure Biden has touted regularly as he tours the country to promote his economic agenda.

For both parties, the $1.2 trillion package marked a major achievement after years of false promises and jokes about botched “infrastructure weeks.” It took months of late-night negotiating sessions among a small group of moderate Democrats and Republicans before they could reconcile their competing visions about the size and scope of new federal spending.

Even then, though, lawmakers acknowledged their compromise only addressed a fraction of the United States’ true needs. In its latest national report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers projected the nation faces a roughly $2.6 trillion, 10-year backlog in projects to repair the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections — a gap about twice the size of the infrastructure law.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Emily Feenstra, the chief policy and external affairs officer at ASCE. “We need every cent.”

Some of the greatest needs are in transportation, where House Republicans on Tuesday convened a hearing to finalize a 2024 spending bill that includes $6.6 billion in cuts. The spending reductions predominantly target transit and rail, while curbing Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s work to promote environmental and racial equity.

“This bill is another example of the real prog we’re making to reduce overall spending while funding our highest priorities,” Granger told committee lawmakers.

Amtrak would take one of the heaviest blows, potentially losing $1.5 billion in funding next year if the GOP plan becomes law. In a statement last week, Stephen Gardner, the passenger railroad’s chief executive, said such a cut would force Amtrak to “radically reduce or suspend service on various routes across the nation.”

Republicans would extract another $2 billion from a federal infrastructure program used to fund the construction of new transit lines. That could jeopardize a slew of projects now underway — including the Gateway tunnel system between New York and New Jersey, one of the largest infrastructure endeavors in the nation, which hopes to receive $7 billion to make urgently needed repairs.

The GOP bills also provide no new funding in 2024 for a series of grant programs that Republicans historically have supported. That would equate to a roughly $800 million cut from the initiative known as RAISE, which provides money to cities and states so they can construct bridges over rail lines, create new pedestrian paths and finance street redesigns.

The program is so popular the Transportation Department received $15 billion in requests last year, though the agency could only award 162 projects totaling $2.2 billion in funding in June. Some of those requests came from GOP lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee: 17 panel members wrote the Biden administration in search of funds for dozens of local projects in 2022 and 2023, according to letters backing requests for funds that the department released to The Washington Post last week.

The members include Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who wrote in support of five RAISE applicants in her state. Her office accused the Biden administration of “playing political games” in releasing the letters and said the congresswoman “will remain focused on bringing investments back to Iowa while reining in overall government spending.”

Biden, for his part, only sought in 2024 to fund the RAISE program at the level adopted under the infrastructure law. But the president did request — and Republicans ultimately denied — $1.2 billion in new money for infrastructure megaprojects. That would have included funds for the long-sought overhaul of the Brent Spence Bridge between Ohio and Kentucky and the Calcasieu River Bridge, which carries Interstate 10 in Louisiana.

In an early hearing last week, the top Republican overseeing transportation spending — Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — defended the bill as one that “meets the challenge before us to reduce spending and get our debt under control.”

On Tuesday, he added of the fierce debate to come: “These things tend to start out in one place. They always tend to end up some place else.”

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