House panel advances $547 billion surface transportation bill

Roll Call

June 10, 2021 10:32 pm

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced, 38-26, a five-year, $547 billion surface transportation bill largely along party lines early Thursday morning.

Two Republicans, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico, supported the bill. 

Members had submitted a whopping 229 amendments to the sweeping legislation, which was threaded with provisions aimed at fighting climate change and supporting racial equity in the transportation system. Democrats hope the legislation will become a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion-plus infrastructure package.

Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., called the bill’s completion  “a really incredible effort,” saying the committee went through nearly 200 amendments before approving the bill.

“We don’t agree on a lot of stuff,” he said right around 5 a.m. when the committee gaveled out. “But heck, we got through it. It’s tomorrow… We won’t have to come back later today.”

Ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri, who voted against the bill, nonetheless applauded the committee for completing its work. 

“I’m just happy that once again we have produced a bill, a surface transportation reauthorization,” Graves said. “It’s not anything I would’ve done or anythingthat I can support but having said that we’re still doing the people’s work.”

Graves’ comments were a stark contrast from earlier in the debate, when members fought bitterly over issues that seemed unrelated to highway policy.

Police debate

The markup was briefly nearly derailed, for example, by a harsh debate over an amendment introduced by Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, that would strip federal highway safety dollars from communities that defunded police. That debate devolved into a fight over the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol, with Democrats accusing Republicans who did not back the Jan. 6 investigatory commission of not supporting the police. 

“You can talk a big game about supporting law enforcement, but if you voted no on [the Jan. 6 commission] then you don’t support law enforcement,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash. 

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said Strickland’s comments “were completely absurd and completely out of line,” calling Jan. 6  “one myopic incident” that reflected a larger, looming division in the country. 

And Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said Republicans opposed the commission because it was “totally political,” and pointed to the fact that Democrats had impeached President Donald Trump before working to craft the commission as evidence. 

“It’s like putting someone’s head in a guillotine and then trying to prove whether they’re guilty or innocent after their head’s laying in a basket,” Mast said. 

DeFazio and other Democrats argued that stripping NHTSA funding from communities that defunded the police would essentially keep communities from enforcing traffic safety laws at a time when traffic fatalities are at an all-time high. 

“I’m going to vote against your amendment,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., told Nehls, “because your amendment defunds the police.”

But Sam Graves, the ranking member of the committee, said the amendment aimed to discourage cities from defunding police, referencing the movement in some municipalities to shift some law enforcement funding to programs that aim to prevent violent incidents. 

“If you choose to defund the police, this amendment says you’re not going to get federal dollars to backfill your police budget,” he said. “You can’t get your cake and eat it too.”

The amendment failed, 31-37.

Child labor

Tempers also flared over an amendment by Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., that would require the Secretary of Commerce to certify that no electric vehicle charging device paid for with federal dollars use minerals sourced or processed with child labor from overseas. 

The House Democrats’ bill would invest $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure aimed at advancing electric vehicle use in the country. DeFazio called Stauber’s amendment a “cynical attempt to protect carbon-polluting industries like oil and gas,” and argued it was designed to hinder the development of the electric vehicle industry. 

Stauber responded by saying he was “really offended” by DeFazio’s comments. “You cannot turn a blind eye to child labor,” he said.

But DeFazio was unmoved, accusing Stauber of using child labor as an excuse to source such minerals in Minnesota at the expense of the state’s environment. 

“Don’t give us a bunch of BS that we’re soft on China, don’t give us a bunch of of BS that we’re soft on child labor when what you’re trying to do here is cripple the EV industry or perhaps promote cobalt production in your own state,” DeFazio said. “One or the other is not in the national interest.”

The lengthy back-and-forth culminated in DeFazio introducing an amendment to Stauber’s amendment that would strip most provisions of the amendment with the exception of a commission to study electric vehicle battery sourcing and production issues in the United States. DeFazio’s amendment to the Stauber amendment was adopted, 38-30.

Both debates took up long stretches of time during a hearing aimed at marking up what Democrats hope will be a key part of Biden’s $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan. Republicans from the start made it clear that they felt left out of the process and were disinclined to offer support. 

“The reality is you all have your mind made up, and you’re probably going to push this partisan bill through and push it out of the committee and vote it off the floor and send it off to the Senate, where hopefully something better will happen,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark.

While a $312.4 billion bill approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously May 26, there was little hope that the House would repeat that moment of bipartisan cooperation with its bill.

The overall highway bill includes $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety; $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for freight and passenger rail.

It dedicates $8.3 billion for reducing carbon pollution, with an additional $6.2 billion for mitigation and resiliency improvements aimed at building infrastructure resistant to extreme weather events.

The bill also calls for investing $3 billion into a program aimed at tearing down or modifying bridges or overpasses that separated Black and Brown communities from their cities. That proposal would receive $20 billion over eight years in Biden’s plan and $500 million over five years in the Senate bill.

Regardless of Biden’s larger infrastructure plan, the highway bill is considered a must-pass; the current law, a one-year extension of the 2015 law expires at the end of September.