Now that Congress has approved a budget bill that includes a sizable spending hike for the rest of fiscal year 2014, construction industry officials will gear up to battle with advocates for a wide range of other interests for a share of those dollars.
The immediate next focus is the measure's $44.5-billion hike in overall 2014 discretionary spending. The bill split that sum between the broad defense and nondefense sectors, but provided no line-item details. It will be up to the appropriations committees to allocate those funds among the many federal construction and nonconstruction programs. The appropriations panels' chairpersons, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), want to produce a final 2014 spending bill by Jan. 15, when a current stopgap measure expires.
Sean O'Neill, Associated General Contractors of America congressional relations director for infrastructure advancement, says, "In these days of tight budgets, [for] any additional discretionary money that is available, you're going to see various interest groups try to stake their claim."
Construction lobbyists can take some heart from Mikulski's Dec. 17 statement that her panel "is ready to write a funding bill that will create jobs today and jobs tomorrow through important investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development."
Appropriators in the GOP-controlled House have been tougher than their counterparts in the Democratic-led Senate on funds for some public-works accounts. Even with the new budget pact in place, Will Brown, National Utility Contractors Association government-relations manager, thinks the appropriations picture will not change greatly. He says, "We're still going to see two parties that have very different ideas of what infrastructure funding and construction appropriations means."
By setting spending levels for the balance of 2014 and all of 2015, the budget bill gives Congress and agencies some fiscal breathing room. But a new threat is coming: The U.S. is slated to hit its debt limit on Feb. 7. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress on Dec. 19 that his department could take steps to stay under the limit, but "only until late February or early March 2014." That deadline will pose a new test for Congress and the Obama administration.