Will Jim Inhofe Be the Highway Bill's Winning Quarterback? - Washington Insider
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Will Jim Inhofe Be the Highway Bill's Winning Quarterback?

By Christian Klein

Article Date: 11-01-2010
Copyright(C) 2010 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

If anyone can create collaboration between Tea Partiers, Republicans and Democrats, it may well be this Oklahoma Senator.

I'm writing one month before Election Day. Whether they wind up controlling one, both, or neither chamber of Congress, all indications are showing that Republicans will have a stronger hand on Capitol Hill for the next two years. That's going to have a big impact on the progress of the highway bill and we think one Republican lawmaker in particular is poised to emerge as the star quarterback who will get the job done.

First, a quick refresher: SAFETEA-LU, the most recent highway law, expired on Sept. 30, 2009. Since then, money for road and bridge construction has continued to flow, thanks to a series of short-term extensions (the most recent runs to the end of 2010). The highway reauthorization bill is critical to equipment markets because it establishes a predictable, multiyear blueprint for federal surface transportation investment. A 2008 AED study found that each dollar of highway spending creates 6.4 cents in equipment market opportunity (purchase, rental, leasing, and product support).

Unfortunately, efforts to reauthorize and increase funding for the road program have been stymied by a lack of focus on the part of the White House and congressional leaders. The uncertainty has wreaked havoc on equipment distributors. States can't plan and contractors (who have no idea how much work they'll have) are sitting on their hands and not buying new equipment.

Are the prospects for a highway bill any better next year? Here are some thoughts:

First, we know there will be a number of new Tea Party Republicans elected to Congress. If the GOP takes the House, it'll be by a fairly narrow margin. That means Tea Partiers, who are defined by their hostility to new government spending and taxes, will wield significant influence in the Republican Caucus and will limit the House GOP leadership's ability to move legislation that expands existing programs.

Given the prospects for legislative paralysis in the House, the spotlight will shift to the Senate where the stars are aligning for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the senior Republican on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, to be the man who gets the highway bill done.

Why Inhofe? First, his conservative credentials are beyond reproach (he has rock star status in some circles for his vocal opposition to climate change legislation and has been recognized by the American Conservative Union as "Most Outstanding Conservative U.S. Senator"), so he'll be able to credibly appeal to Tea Partiers. Second, he understands how important infrastructure is to economic growth and has been an unabashed supporter of increased highway investment. Third, because Republicans are expected to control around 48 Senate seats after the election (they currently have 41), he'll have considerable say in what the EPW Committee does (and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he'll be chairman). Finally, he's been here before and knows how to play the game, having served as EPW chairman during the last highway reauthorization.

Working with the senior Democrat on the EPW committee (who may or may not still be Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), depending on the outcome of her Senate race), Inhofe could bring all parties together to craft a balanced bill that improves transparency and puts the highway program back on sound financial footing. Then, with the help of the construction industry, business community, labor, and environmentalists, he could build bipartisan coalition of Republican and Democratic senators to get the bill through the Senate. Once the Senate passes the legislation, pro-infrastructure House Republicans could partner with Democrats to pass the bill the same way they did in the mid-1990s and the get ball over the goal line.

But the clock is running down and Inhofe has to act fast if he's going to win the game. With the presidential election approaching, the window to get anything done on the Hill will start to close next September. If our industry stays engaged, we could finish highway reauthorization by the end of next year. If it's not done, it'll mean trouble because the legislation (and related funding issues) could become a political football heading into the primaries.

Until then, Senator Inhofe, it's your ball! Take us to the end zone!

Christian Klein (caklein@aednet.org) is vice president of Government Affairs and Washington Counsel. He can be reached at 703-739-9513.
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