As another federal funding deadline looms on March 18, congressional Democrats and Republicans are far apart on spending levels for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year. Construction industry officials say spending cuts are all but inevitable. They hope an eventual compromise won’t have reductions that inflict as much pain on infrastructure programs as the cuts in a bill that the House recently approved.

“Everybody agrees that there’s going to be cuts,” says Andrew Goldberg, the American Institute of Architects’ senior director of federal relations. The question is how deep the reductions will be, Goldberg observes.

A proposal that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) released on March 4 trims about $6 billion from enacted 2010 levels. The bill the Republican-controlled House passed on Feb. 19 has $61 billion in cutbacks.

Inouye’s proposal would preserve much of the money that the House bill proposes to chop from programs such as Environmental Protection Agency aid to state revolving funds for sewage-treatment and drinking-water projects. His plan also rejects the House bill’s move to zero out Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants for major national or regional projects.

Inouye recommends $1 billion for the high-speed-rail account, down from $2.5 billion in 2010. The House-passed bill would rescind the $2.475 billion in 2010 high-speed-rail funds that have not been obligated yet.

John Horsley, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ executive director, says he hopes the final compromise won’t include the House’s $650-million cut from the transit new-starts program and the $2.5 billion sliced from high-speed rail. He says the rail program is “an initiative that has tremendous interest and support at the state level.”

Senate votes were planned on March 8 on Inouye’s proposal and on the House-passed bill, but there were reports at press time that the schedule could change. Observers doubt that either bill will win the 60 votes necessary to clear the Senate. Goldberg predicts, “Neither is going to pass.” However, he says if both bills are defeated, it “will send a message to everybody that they need to negotiate.”

If Congress wants to avoid shutting down federal agencies, it needs to clear a spending bill of some sort by March 18, when the current stopgap expires. Another short extension is possible.

American Subcontractors Association Executive Vice President Colette Nelson says the failure of Congress to act on appropriations increases the uncertainty construction subcontractors face. “The higher the level of uncertainty is, the lower the level of re-hiring will be,” Nelson says. “Legislators who care about construction jobs need to speak with their actions, not just words.”

House Vs. Senate Democrats’ bills
(in $ millions)
Program Senate House FY 10 Enacted
DOT TIGER grants 600 0 600
EPA clean-water SRF 2,100 690 2,100
EPA drinking-water SRF 1,387 830, 1,387
GSA new construction 591 0 894
Source: Senate and House Appropriations Committees; White House