When it comes to critical issues, such as infrastructure spending and regulatory policy, construction-industry officials have a clear idea of what to expect if President Obama wins re-election. In short, they expect a second Obama administration would pursue the legislative and regulatory priorities it has followed since 2009.
This déjà vu picture has a second aspect: With Republicans predicted to keep control of the House and at least narrow Democrats' already thin Senate majority, the GOP again would be able to block new Obama bills. In other words, more gridlock may lie ahead.
On spending, Obama has continued to speak out for increased funding for highways and other infrastructure, but his statements have been short on details. In his Sept. 6 speech accepting his party's nomination, Obama said he plans to use funds that would have gone for overseas wars "to pay down our debt and put more people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways." He added, "It's time to do some nation-building right here at home."
Obama also called for domestic "nation-building" in his State of the Union address on Jan. 24. A year ago, he proposed a $105-billion infrastructure infusion.
Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, says, "I'm encouraged by some of the things that have been said on the campaign trail by the president and his surrogates about the importance of rebuilding America and the infrastructure and building roads and highways." But she adds, "I think that as far as the … Democratic platform goes, I don't see anything new or any specifics."
Union officials strongly favor Obama's policies on labor issues over those proposed by the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept., said the Democrats' platform "offers a genuine commitment to the validity and necessity of America's labor unions."
But McGarvey also said the building trades "need more specifics and less rhetoric" from Democrats, especially about infrastructure. In particular, he wants to see a surface-transportation bill with increased funding as well as measures to modernize schools and re-authorize Clean Water Act and Corps of Engineers civil-works programs. He also called on Democrats to maintain federal agencies' ability to use project labor agreements on the types of projects those bills fund.
Congress failed to act on nearly all of the $105 billion Obama proposed for infrastructure in 2011. The exception was a boost for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program in the recently signed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). But if Obama is re-elected and revives his public-works spending proposals, they may not fare any better in the next Congress than they have in the current one.
For one thing, Republicans are expected to retain significant power in the 113th Congress. The independent Cook Political Report predicts that in the Senate, the GOP, which now holds 47 seats, will pick up two to five seats on Nov. 6. In the House, where Republicans have a 242-193 edge, the Cook report says that, at worst, the Republicans will lose just eight seats.
In addition, whatever the outcome of the presidential race, pressure to trim the $1-trillion-plus federal budget deficit will squeeze funding for domestic programs, including public works. Bill Hillman, National Utility Contractors Association CEO, says, "I would say, frankly, no matter who wins the election, our community is going to have to fight like warriors to get every last federal infrastructure dollar."