New Congress may start all over with TEA-21 reauthorization

The major question the transportation construction industry is asking following the Nov. 2 elections is “What does this mean for TEA-21 reauthorization?”

Congress could still approve a long-term transportation funding bill during its “lame duck” session scheduled to begin Nov. 16. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, such action would require final decisions on the overall funding of the bill and on a number of major, and potentially contentious, policy issues. The road builders’ group says these decisions will remain extremely difficult to reach if the overall funding level legislators discuss continues to be constrained to barely keeping pace with expected inflation. Nonetheless, congressional leaders are expected to make a serious effort to move a final reauthorization bill in mid-November-and may settle for a modest increase in funding that is said to have the president’s approval.

If the reauthorization process rolls over into the 109th Congress, the House and Senate transportation committees would be required to start the reauthorization process over with the introduction of new legislation. While it is impossible at this point to determine where the leaders of these committees would start the process in 2005, President Bush has made clear his desire to hold all non-defense or homeland security programs to modest funding growth. A number of newly elected Republican senators are fiscal and social conservatives and are expected to bolster the president’s call for fiscal discipline, according to ARTBA. The administration has also opposed increasing federal highway user fees or other revenue mechanisms.

ARTBA says the Senate-approved reauthorization measure — $301 billion in guaranteed funds and $318 billion in authorizations — has the same deficit impact as the Bush administration’s proposed reauthorization bill because the Senate Finance Committee ensured the bill’s new investments were “paid for.” The original TEA-21 bill was enacted in 1998 in a political environment heavily dominated by agreement between the GOP-controlled Congress and President Clinton to balance the federal budget. TEA-21 was the first legislation to exceed the investment levels called for in the balanced budget agreement of 1997 and was characterized by opponents as a budget buster. The measure passed the House 297-86 and the Senate 88-5.