As Congress begins its lame-duck session, one item that construction groups and companies will be studying closely is the fate of appropriations legislation to fund federal agencies, including their construction and infrastructure programs, through next Sept. 30, the end of the 2021 fiscal year.
Lawmakers face a deadline. Since Oct. 1, agencies and departments have been operating, generally at fiscal 2020 levels, under a stopgap continuing resolution, or CR. It expires Dec. 11.
Before the election, the House had passed 10 of its 12 individual spending bills, each of which funds one or more agencies. In the Senate, though, none of its 12 bills had even made it out of committee.
But clearly lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee have quietly been at work. On Nov. 10, a week after Election Day, the panel released what it said were subcommittee-approved versions of all 12 spending bills.
Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director, called the release of the Senate bills “a good step forward.” Tymon said there have been positive signals from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that they want to produce an omnibus spending package in the lame-duck period.
Tymon told AASHTO’s annual meeting, “They don’t want to do another CR and drag this into the next calendar year.” He adds, “Hopefully, they’ll be able to work things out over the next couple of weeks.”
A House Democratic aide told ENR via email on Nov. 16, “Staff-level negotiations are ongoing and there is a strong desire on the part of both Democrats and Republicans to complete work on all 12 bills by the Dec. 11 deadline.”
Jimmy Christianson, the Associated General Contractors of America’s vice president for government relations, says “at this point, it’s all just about negotiation.” He doesn’t expect a resolution until just days before that deadline.
But if the two sides strike a deal, Christianson says, “Then the question will be: What does President Trump want to do?” His signature is needed before any legislation becomes law. And Christianson says, “We don’t know where he stands on this [spending bill] as of yet.”
The funding levels for construction programs, as always, show a mix of increases, freezes and cuts compared with the previous year. In many cases, the differences from 2020 levels are small.
For the Dept. of Transportation, for example, both the House and Senate appropriators would provide $1 billion for the BUILD (formerly TIGER) infrastructure grants, the same as the 2020 funding. Likewise, both the House and Senate subcommittee bills would freeze Federal Aviation Administration airport improvement grants’ obligation limit at $3.35 billion.
On the other hand, for the key highway obligation ceiling, the Senate panel proposes holding 2021 funding at this year’s $46.4 billion. The House bill would go much higher, to $61.1 billion, reflecting the chamber’s Moving Forward Act. But that seems unlikely to be the final number.
Taking a wider view, AGC’s Christianson says that with state and local government budgets hit hard by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, their spending on infrastructure and construction probably will be down in 2021.
He adds, “This is an indication that no matter what happens, the federal market is still going to be the most certain market for government construction contractors.”
Contractors seem to recognize that. Already, Christianson says, the Army Corps of Engineers, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command and General Services Administration—all of which issue direct construction contracts to private companies—are reporting that they are seeing more competition for their contracts than they had in recent previous years.