Constrained by sequester, US spending bill falls short

The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has approved a plan to cut the national rail carrier’s budget by $260 million, one of many critical cutbacks including an 80% reduction to TIGER Grants.

US Senate Democrats are railing against their Republican counterparts in the House of Representatives, who through a majority in the Appropriations Committee last week approved a plan to cut transportation funding to agencies including Amtrak just one day after a fatal crash along the Northeast Corridor left eight dead and dozens injured in Philadelphia.

The bill was passed through the committee 30-21, with opponents citing their discontent that it wasn't a “real” bill since it didn't go far enough to address critical infrastructure needs in transport and housing. Legislative supporters, by contrast, agreed that the drafters went as far as they possibly could go while remaining within the legal limits imposed on their spending as a result of sequestration.

While House and Senate Democrats have spoken out against the budget and place blame for its inadequacy on the Republican party – North Carolina Representative David Price called the bill's lack of suitable allocations a result of “self-imposed austerity” by the Republican majority – Republicans say that they cannot draft a Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) funding measure that they would like to pass because sequestration is standing in their way, pointing the finger at the White House for their inability to act.

In total resources, the bill provides $108.7 billion in budgetary authority and obligation, according to Diaz-Balart, with $55.27 percent of that falling within discretionary limits. While that is a real dollar increase of $1.5 billion from the FY 2015 budget, he said, after all appropriations are taken into consideration it only raises real spending power by $25 million.

Price countered by saying that the bill actually falls $1.5 billion short of the previous budget, but he conceded that “indeed, the Chairman was dealt a very difficult hand” as a result of sequestration.

The national infrastructure investment grants known as Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants would take one of the biggest cuts, garnering only $100 million of total allocations – $400 million below the FY 2015 enacted level and $1.15 billion below the requested amount. The Federal Railroad Administration would suffer a $262 million cut to their $1.4 billion allocation, and the Federal Transit Administration's allotment fell $161 million short of 2015 funding at $10.7 billion.

But despite its shortcomings, the bill does call for increased allocation to some agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, with funding clocking in at $15.9 billion – $159 million more than in 2015. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also each saw boosts of $6.5 million, $572 million, and $6.9 million, respectively.

The Highway Trust Fund allotment remains flat with the 2015 allocation at $40.25 billion.

The THUD bill was approved by the committee with five amendments, including a proposal by New York Representative Nita Lowey to up allocation for Highway Rail Grade Crossings within the Federal Highway Administration Highway Formula by $130 million.

An amendment proposed by Philadelphia Representative Chaka Fattah to more than double Amtrak funding to $2.45 billion, which is the same amount that was requested by the White House in its 2016 budget, failed to gain traction on the grounds that it would force a point of order. Committee Chairman and Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers and bill drafter Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart agreed that this would most likely see the bill fail on the House floor.

When discussing his own separate failed amendment – one that was voted down along party lines and called for 12 capital projects divided evenly amongst housing and transportation, including modernisation and improvement of FAA and Amtrak routes – Price said that in order to pass an acceptable allocation, they simply needed more money. He advocated for over budgeting on purpose, and forcing the legislative and executive branches to talk about ending sequestration early in the session.

“The needs are too many and the necessities are too great for the funding provided in the bill,” he said.

Having been approved by the committee, the THUD bill is next to face the scrutiny of the full House of Representatives.