Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)—the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, one of the most important congressional panels for construction—is likely to take a tough stance against environmental regulations and be an advocate for infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, observers say.
Barrasso, 64, elected as EPW chairman on Jan. 4, is a staunch conservative who industry officials say has had a low profile—one calls him “a little bit of an enigma.” The first item on his agenda is a confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. The hearing is likely to be an early round in a partisan battle throughout Congress over environmental regulations.
Barrasso says EPA has been a “runaway” regulatory agency during the Obama administration. He and EPW’s other GOP members are expected to back Pruitt strongly. The nominee has been part of a court challenge to one of President Obama’s signature environmental actions, a regulation curbing air emissions of carbon pollutants. Democrats, on the other hand, will criticize Pruitt, whom Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh contends “has made an entire career out of blocking EPA’s ability to do its job.”
EPW also is the lead Senate panel on policies and authorizing funds for highways and Corps of Engineers civil works. In those areas, Barrasso said his priorities include “finding ways to better empower rural communities by addressing aging roads, bridges and dams.” Before coming to the U.S. Senate in 2007, Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon, served for five years in Wyoming’s Senate and chaired the transportation committee, says Joe Spiering, Wyoming Contractors Association spokesman. Barrasso “understands and has championed rural transportation needs time and again,” he adds.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, observes, “He comes from a state with a lot of highways.” William Panos, Wyoming Dept. of Transportation director, said via email that his agency “has long enjoyed great support and leadership” from Barrasso and his staff. The senator also backed aviation, transit and tribal transportation issues, Panos adds. Barrasso, who chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, successfully pushed to get tribal water provisions, including dam safety and expanded water supply, into the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.
Barrasso succeeds Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who stepped down as EPW chairman because of term limits but remains on the committee. EPW also has a new ranking Democrat, Tom Carper (Del.). He succeeds Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who retired at the end of last year.
Inhofe and Boxer stood far apart on the environment, but they had a tight bond on infrastructure, resulting in major 2012 and 2015 surface-transportation laws and 2014 and 2016 water-resources measures. Mike Strachn, senior adviser with Dawson & Associates, says, “I suspect that the Barrasso-Carper team will try to emulate that [infrastructure stance] to the degree that they can, given that they’re going to be facing some pretty thorny issues right up front.”