As the House and Senate return from their August recess, little action is expected before lawmakers leave again in early October to campaign for the Nov. 6 elections. The only must-pass pre-election bill affecting construction programs is a temporary spending measure to keep federal agencies operating through March 2013.
Construction-equipment companies and other business groups are hopeful Congress also will pass a trade bill aimed at boosting U.S. exports to Russia.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says, "I expect [Congress] to be in and out. They're not going to be in session very much in September."
In the meantime, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have agreed to pass a six-month stopgap continuing resolution (CR). That step eased fears about another spending crisis and the threat of a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year.
The new CR would keep total discretionary spending at the $1.047-trillion total set in the 2001 Budget Control Act, not the $1.028-trillion cap contained in the budget resolution the House passed in March. The CR is expected to continue individual programs' funding at fiscal 2012 levels. But the Boehner-Reid agreement still must be turned into legislative language and approved by both houses by Oct. 1, when fiscal 2013 begins.
Bill Hillman, National Utility Contractors Association CEO, says, "We actually fare a little bit better under the CR than we did under the cuts that were going to be made under the proposed fiscal 13 appropriations for some of the clean-water programs." But he adds, "It's nothing to pop champagne corks about."
There is pressure to make at least one exception in the CR's six-month spending freeze. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Aug. 27 asked Boehner to add $61 million to the Architect of the Capitol's budget for further repairs to the Capitol dome. But altering the CR to add money for the dome could open the door for "me too" appeals from many other lawmakers.
A top pre-election priority for heavy- equipment makers and business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a bill that would grant Russia permanent normal trade relations with the U.S. Advocates say that passing the bill would lead to tariff cuts on U.S. exports to Russia and other benefits. A critical House floor vote is expected on Sept. 12.
However, other than the CR and maybe the Russia trade bill, the brief post-Labor Day congressional session will be short on results. Jeff Shoaf, Associated General Contractors of America senior executive director for government affairs, says, "They have an opportunity to use the excuse that 'We'll take care of it after the election in the lame-duck [session]' for everything else."
Hansen notes that lawmakers have been in their districts and states since early August. "They can see they need to be home campaigning," he says.