Transportation-Bill Battle Gives Insight on Gridlock, Power Plays in Congress
WASHINGTON — IN public, lawmakers argue about the major issues of the day. In private, they often battle over more-mundane concerns, such as committee turf. But in recent weeks, one of those behind-the-scenes battles has broken into public view, providing a glimpse of how Congress shapes legislation and why gridlock can be so hard to break.
The main combatants are Rep. Norman Mineta (D) of California, chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, and Rep. Bob Carr (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
At issue is which man, and which committee, will shape this year's $40 billion transportation-appropriations bill, which pays for the construction of subways, highways, and bridges, as well as the operations of the Coast Guard, Amtrak, and other agencies.
"It has been an enormous fight," Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida said July 22. "Not a partisan fight, but a fight among the titans of the Democratic leadership struggling to retain their turf."
Under Congress's Byzantine rules, committees like the public-works panel are supposed to "authorize" programs. Then the Appropriations Committee, whose 13 subcommittee chairmen are known as the "college of cardinals," sets aside the funds to pay for the authorized programs.
Appropriators are not supposed to conduct substantive legislative business, but that prohibition has seldom been honored in the past. The "cardinals" often fund programs not authorized by other committees or refuse to fund authorized programs. Usually, it's all done in a back-slapping manner, ensuring that no egos are bruised and that all members' concerns are addressed.
But Mr. Carr and Mr. Mineta are new to their chairmanships and, like bulls in neighboring pastures, they are eager to mark out their territory. So Mineta and other public-works-panel members launched a very public attack on the Appropriations subcommittee for funding many projects that they hadn't authorized. Focus on special highway projects
Mineta has focused his ire on 58 "special highway projects" worth $305 million. Sixty-five percent of that money goes to states represented on the Appropriations subcommittee, with $109 million designated for Carr's home state of Michigan. The Public Works Committee wants to spread the $305 million among all the states under a formula developed by the committee. Not surprisingly, that formula would award far more money to California, Mineta's home state.
Carr claims that his highway funds were awarded based on objective economic criteria, but Public Works members have hollered "Pork barreling!" "This so-called new investment criteria must be skewed in one direction. And that one direction must be to the state of Michigan," Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania charged on the House floor July 22.
Bob Carr doesn't hesitate to return fire. The youthful-looking chairman tells reporters that his subcommittee has to fund many projects because it takes too long for the Public Works Committee to pass a bill. "We're a bunch of doers," Carr exclaims, while the Public Works Committee "cares more about inside-the-Beltway jurisdictional rules than solving problems."
While the Carr-Mineta feud rages, the transportation bill has been stalled for weeks. House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington and other House leaders have tried, mostly in vain, to break the logjam.
All sides thought they had reached a deal last week. After meeting with Mr. Foley and Carr July 20, Mineta agreed that the bill would be brought to the House floor under a rule protecting the 58 highway projects against parliamentary challenges.
But Public Works members attacked the proposed rule, leading an angry House leadership to yank the bill at the last minute. Redrawn bill up for vote tomorrow
An aide to the Public Works Committee says other committee members were not bound by Mineta's agreement. Carr has a different view. "Norm's a friend of mine," he says, "but he's shown that he's a person who can't deliver on a commitment."
After the contretemps on the House floor, the Appropriations subcommittee went back to the drawing board last weekend. Working around the clock, committee members and staff produced a slightly redrawn transportation bill that the committee passed by voice vote on Tuesday.
The revamped legislation, scheduled for a floor vote tomorrow, drops a $21 million highway project for Michigan - an attempt by Carr to defuse charges of home-state favoritism. The other 57 projects remain in the bill, but they have been moved around so that they cannot all be wiped out by a single parliamentary challenge.
Carr hopes that this maneuver will save at least some projects and allow the House to pass the transportation bill. But Mineta is preparing a battery of parliamentary challenges and amendments designed to kill all special highway projects.
Referring to the looming showdown, Carr tells reporters: "Get your popguns out!"