Congress is Back in Session: Here’s What to Watch For

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Now that summer has ‘unofficially’ ended, Congress returns to D.C. with a laundry list of items to accomplish before wrapping up the 2019 legislative session. However, what’s most pressing is that Congress must pass all 12 appropriations (funding) bills before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2019 to prevent a government shutdown. The House passed 10 of its 12 appropriations bills before leaving for August recess, but the Senate has yet to release any of its appropriations bills. With the deadline looming upon us (only nine days away), it is likely Congress will pass a short-term funding extension, or continuing resolution (CR).

To help tackle the question of approving the federal budget, Congress approved a two-year spending deal for FY2020 and FY2021 before they headed home for recess. At $321 billion, this budgetary outline included increases in funding for key infrastructure programs.  This week, the buzz has been the release of a draft CR to extend federal funding, likely to November 22. Despite the request from ASCE and other industry leaders, the CR does not include the repeal the July 1, 2020 rescission of $7.6 billion from the highway account in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). However, the bill would temporarily avert an impending $1.2 billion cut to transit funds.

Surface Transportation

One major pre-recess highlight was the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee’s five-year bill that is set at a historically high funding level of $287 billion. This is the first step in reauthorizing highway and bridge programs currently set to expire under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act on September 30, 2020. It also sets the stage for the Senate Commerce and Banking Committees to address rail networks, safety, and transit programs before the Senate Finance Committee finds the pay-for.

We have already begun to see the Senate Commerce Committee hold hearings and take stakeholder input as they begin to draft legislation, and we urge the other committees of jurisdiction to begin working on their portion of a surface transportation authorization bill.

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as the Ways and Means Committee, have not yet made a move to develop their comprehensive surface transportation bills. ASCE urges swift action to follow the Senate that includes a long-term fix to the HTF.

As this legislation moves through Congress, contact your Members of Congress and urge them to invest in our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure and fix the HTF!

Water and Public Parks Infrastructure

Congress has also begun holding hearings on the next Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which is due for its biennial reauthorization in 2020. WRDA authorizes key programs and projects that are critical to improving our nation’s water-related infrastructure categories, including dams, levees, ports, inland waterways, drinking water, and wastewater. ASCE was pleased with many of the provisions passed in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, or the Water Resources Development Act of 2018, and we are preparing our water-related infrastructure priorities to advocate for in advance of the WRDA 2020 bill.

During the August recess, ASCE sent a letter to House leadership urging them to bring the bipartisan Restore Our Parks & Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225) to the House floor for a vote this month. This legislation would create a dedicated fund to address our National Park Service’s (NPS) $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, and ASCE supports the bill as a way to help raise our nation’s “D+” public parks grade.

This month, we expect to see a House Transportation & Committee mark-up of the Resilience Revolving Loan Fund Act (H.R. 3779), which creates a new state revolving fund to provide low-interest loans to counties and cities for disaster mitigation projects.  Loans will be made available for projects aimed to minimize risks of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, storm surges, chemical spills, and others. ASCE argues that this bill is a way to ensure our nation’s infrastructure is built to withstand and protect against future extreme weather events and other man-made disasters. In fact, resilience is so important to the overall health of our infrastructure network that it is one of the eight key criteria used for assessment in the Infrastructure Report Card.

Education

House Democrats are expected to introduce their Aim Higher Act in late September, which would reauthorize Higher Education programs. While the bill does not appear to have Republican support, it is expected to be approved quickly. Meanwhile on the Senate side, there has been little headway on crafting on more bipartisan measure. The Higher Education Act (HEA), first passed in 1965, authorizes programs at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that administers most federal student financial aid, collects data on the nation’s colleges and universities, and administers many of the federal higher education policies created by Congress. It also enforces laws regarding privacy, civil rights, and other issues for institutions that accept federal funds. College affordability, access, persistence, and completion rates; better information for consumers; student loan programs; accreditation and oversight; innovation; campus safety; and the burden of federal regulations are just some of the issues that will be addressed during reauthorization.

As you can see, there is a lot happening on Capitol Hill this fall! Stay tuned for opportunities to engage with your Members of Congress.

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