Last week, I had the honor and pleasure of speaking to a small, bipartisan group of Members of Congress who are trying to find solutions to some of the most intractable problems that have been delaying action on a new, major infrastructure investment bill. While all Members of Congress seem to agree on the need to invest in our nation’s highways, transit systems, airports, and wastewater systems, few agree on the best way to raise the revenue to pay for this. Additionally, many Members on both sides of the aisle would like to bring back “earmarks,” or “Congressionally-Directed Spending,” by including them in an infrastructure bill.
While I am by no means an expert on infrastructure financing, I was able to share with this group my experiences back in the 1990s, working as a Chief of Staff for a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In 1998, Congress passed “TEA-21,” which increased highway spending by 44 percent and mass transit new starts by 50 percent, utilizing gas tax receipts as the main source of revenue. This success was largely attributable to the ability of then-Chairman Bud Shuster to include earmarked funding in the bill for nearly every Congressional District, represented by both Republicans and Democrats.
At the time, my boss remembered hearing many of his colleagues say something akin to the following: “I would never vote for a bill that raises gas taxes and spends this much money unless I could guarantee that a portion of this funding was coming back to my district.”
I conveyed this experience to this current group of Democratic and Republican members (many of whom are younger than me), and my belief that these same tenets hold true today. It will be difficult if not impossible to get a majority of Members to support a huge new investment without guarantees that this funding will return to their districts in the form of special projects.
Also integral to the success of bringing projects back is ensuring constituents that they are part of the decision-making process. When Congress last allowed for Congressionally-Directed Spending to be included in appropriations bills, one Member of Congress from Pennsylvania organized a citizens advisory group to review the dozens of project requests received by the Congressman and make recommendations on those that he should submit to the Appropriations Committee. This model would work well in demonstrating a greater level of inclusiveness in the process. I also recommended that Congress refer to these projects as “District Directed” spending, instead of “Congressionally-Directed” or “Member Directed.” While each Member may have legitimate opinions about which projects should be funded, these decisions should ultimately be made by those they represent and reflect the greatest infrastructure needs of their Congressional Districts.