Your Congress in Action is a series that highlights the Capitol Hill news that affects CRM firms the most. Be sure to subscribe to the ACRAsphere to ensure you don't miss an update.
Crunch time is fast approaching for many of President Biden’s top policy initiatives – and for proposals that impact cultural resource management.
At the top of the list is infrastructure. Biden met last Tuesday with Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV), the top Senate Republican negotiator, to hammer out a compromise on Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Both sides have floated proposals totaling roughly $1 trillion, a far cry from the White House’s original $2.3 trillion plan, but well above the initial Republican offer of $500 billion. But the close numbers do not reveal a sharp divide: the White House wants that $1 trillion to be new spending above what the government is already budgeting for, while the GOP wants to repurpose already authorized spending.
Biden also took a step towards Republicans on how to pay for the package, but it might not be enough. Initially, Biden’s proposal called for the top corporate tax rate to go from 21 percent to 28 percent, a non-starter for Republicans. Last week, Biden offered to keep the top rate at 21 percent but institute a minimum corporate rate of 15 percent, meaning no corporation would pay less than that. Republicans reacted coolly to the idea, but the talks continue.
Meanwhile, many Democrats are growing increasingly impatient with efforts to find common ground with Republicans, particularly after Senate Republicans blocked a proposal in late May to form a commission to investigate the Jan. 6th insurrection. The House-passed bill, which was negotiated by the top Republican and Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, failed to receive the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster, even though six Senate Republicans did vote to move ahead with debate. Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has been the strongest defender of the filibuster among Democrats, expressed dismay that so few Republicans supported the Commission.
Although Biden ran for president on the notion of bipartisanship and has been reluctant to go it alone, he is showing signs of frustration with what he sees as Republican intransigence – and a lack of support from some Democrats. In a speech Monday marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, Biden pushed for Senate passage of a major voting rights bill, saying, “I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
This was widely interpreted to refer to Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), both of whom have been opposed to reforming the filibuster rules (even though both do vote with Democrats more than with Republicans). It demonstrates the extent to which Democrats believe that enacting their agenda – not just infrastructure and voting rights but policing reform, climate change, immigration and other issues - will depend more on keeping Democrats united and less on reaching out to Republicans they believe don’t want to work with them.
Despite the partisan tensions, things are moving on some key issues, including transportation. The week before last, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a $305 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 to finance roads and bridges. This amount is 34 percent higher from the last reauthorization to pass Congress, in 2015. The bill, however, has raised concerns among environmental groups that it continues efforts to chip away at NEPA by creating additional exclusions from NEPA for certain kinds of projects, limits the time allowed for NEPA reviews, and limits the length of encironmental impact statements and environmental assessments to 200 pages except in limited circumstances. Although the bill does not affect the National Historic Preservation Act’s Sec. 106 and 110 requirements, ACRA is monitoring the bill closely and urging lawmakers to protect both NEPA and NHPA.
On the other side of the Capitol, Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unveiled a $547 billion transportation funding package late last week that would ramp up spending on rail and transit, while encouraging states to repair existing roads rather than build new ones. While there will be lots of disagreement between the two parties, and two chambers, it is likely that Congress will at least enact legislation to fund transportation projects. Whether they can pass a larger infrastructure package is still an open question.
Democrats feel pressure to act on infrastructure quickly, as they may lose control of one or both houses of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. But the election is not the only deadline lawmakers face. Congress is beginning work on annual appropriations bills to keep the majority of federal departments and agencies running in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1. President Biden submitted his budget request to Congress two weeks ago. The plan would spend $6 trillion in the next fiscal year, and would see total annual spending rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031, with deficits running above $1.3 trillion throughout the next decade. House Democrats will start drafting their appropriations bills this week, with the Senate to follow.
Of top interest to the CRM profession is funding for the Historic Preservation Fund, which Congress has never fully funded. The HPF, which helps support state and tribal historic preservation offices and a host of other preservation programs, can receive up to $150 million per year from oil and gas royalties. Congress provided $144 million in the current fiscal year – the highest ever – but ACRA and its allies are pushing for the full amount.
ACRA is making the case that, like Sec. 106, the Historic Preservation Fund helps the United States preserve and protect its history, both the good and the bad. That desire to tell the full story of America was on display last week as the country marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, when mobs of White residents destroyed more than 35 square blocks of what was at the time the wealthiest Black community in the U.S., killing as many as 300. Only in recent years has the terrible story of the massacre been told, but as President Biden said in Tulsa last week, “Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place.” The role of the CRM industry is to help tell that history, and to advocate for federal policies that make that possible.