Critic: McCain calls earmarks 'disgraceful.'

Critics of projects and provisions that lawmakers insert in spending bills have their best chance in years to curb the practice, thanks to a drive to put restrictions on lobbyists. Observers think a ban on these “earmarks” isn’t likely, but limits on such provisions, or more openness in drafting bills, may result.

The outcome could have a direct impact on where construction money goes, because many earmarks are for highways and other projects. Even so, contends Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, “I still say that over all, from an industry perspective [earmark limits are] not necessarily a bad thing, because the money’s still going to get spent. The point of decision just changes.” Instead of Congress, a state or local official would steer the dollars.

The most prominent critic, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), says the Congressional Research Service calculated that the number of such provisions jumped from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,268 last year. “It’s disgraceful, this process,” McCain told a Jan. 25 Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) say they “plan to challenge future legislative earmarks that come to the Senate floor.”

Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association vice president for government affairs, says earmarks won’t be eliminated. “I just don’t think that’s realistic,” he says. Adds another industry source: “I can’t imagine that [House Appropriations Chairman] Jerry Lewis or [Senate Appropriations Chairman] Thad Cochran are going to give up their right to determine who gets what money in the whole appropriations process.”

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) says he is an advocate of reforming the process. One possible target are mammoth, omnibus packages, which have drawn many late add-ons. Long-time Senate appropriator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), thinks Congress should make the spending calls. But he also calls the huge end-of-session bills a “Frankenstein monster of the legislative process.”

American Highway Users Alliance President Gregory Cohen says lawmakers may be required to identify their earmarks publicly, or spell them out in a bill, not its accompanying report. “It has gotten a bit out of control,” he says. “The vast majority are worthy projects, but if corruption enters into it then we do face the risk of bad projects getting funded. We should make sure that the process isn’t tainted.”

Buildings: Federal Agencies Commit to Sustainability Goals
Seventeen federal agencies have agreed to a common set of sustainability principles for design, construction and operation of their facilities. The agencies, which include the General Services Administration, Dept. of Defense and Environmental Protection Agency, set goals for energy efficiency, water use, indoor air quality, materials use and minimizing construction waste at a White House summit on high-performance buildings, held Jan. 24-25.

The agreement, in accordance with the Energy Policy Act signed last August, also outlines a process for comparing actual building performance to design targets. The agencies now have six months to incorporate the principles into policy and develop implementing guidelines.

Roads: Report Sees No Finance Crisis
A Transportation Research Board panel says the U.S. highway finance system doesn�t face an imminent crisis, but sees major benefits from wider tolling and other ways to match fees better to how much motorists drive. In a report released Jan. 23, the TRB panel says the road finance system should cover some added capacity and improvements over 15 years. But it says funding won't be enough to fix congestion. Other recent studies take a darker view of the health of the Highway Trust Fund, roads� current financing centerpiece (ENR 11/14/05 p. 61).

The TRB report predicts gains from a system that charges motorists directly for their road use. That would include variable-price toll expressways plus metering to levy fees based on miles driven. But metering �will require a sustained national effort,� it adds.

Supreme Court: Alito Confirmed, Wetlands Cases Coming Up
With Samuel A. Alito Jr., confirmed to the Supreme Court, the first cases he will face deal with wetlands regulation. On Feb. 21 the court will hear oral arguments in the consolidated Rapanos v. U.S. and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, plus S.D. Warren v. Maine Board of Environmental Protection. Construction and environmental groups are watching the cases closely. On Jan. 31 the Senate confirmed Alito, 58-42.

Compiled by Joann Gonchar and Tom Ichniowski