Infrastructure Is a Congressional Favorite In 2021

Capitol building at night

Several Important Industry Bills Are Moving Through Congress, But How Far?

Congress has taken the infrastructure issue and embraced it with a zeal not seen since the 1950s and 1960s highway building programs. It goes without saying NUCA is very pleased with this session’s attention to infrastructure issues, but until President Biden signs real legislation, we’re keeping our powder dry and the membership informed.

Since the last issue of Utility Contractor was published, there have been some significant mile markers that have been passed on the way to a (optimistically) happy conclusion of a Presidential signature.

The surface transportation reauthorization bill in the House (INVEST in America Act of 2021, H.R. 3684) passed July 1 (221-201) mostly along party lines but with a (very) small amount of Republican support.

NUCA largely took a sideline on this bill. While our organization is hugely supportive of the bill’s water and wastewater funding levels, some of the included policy provisions relating to project-labor agreements on specific clean energy projects, increased truck insurance minimums, and others that NUCA opposed – and will continue to oppose – made it into the final bill. NUCA government relations staff remains involved in the process, and we are working to ensure a better bill comes forward during any conference committee that may be ahead in months to come.

Please remember as you follow progress this session on infrastructure, each of these bills and the legislative process itself is turning out to be extremely complex, even by Washington standards. Having met their goal of passing significant infrastructure legislation before July 4, House Democrats are now putting pressure on the Senate to move their pieces into place.

There is a huge gulf that needs to be bridged between the largely partisan House highway bill and their bipartisan Senate counterparts. Among those Senate bills included in the mix are the NUCA-supported Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 (S. 914), and a $35+ billion bipartisan SRF reauthorization bill. The Senate is also diligently working on their version of the highway bill, of which several components have cleared their respective committees on bipartisan votes. The final bill has yet to clear the full Senate.

After what many perceived to be a severe strategic misstep, Biden and most of the Democratic leadership have mostly backed off explicitly linking the bipartisan infrastructure framework to the budget reconciliation legislation being considered to pass “social infrastructure” issues. This comes despite complaints from progressives that the bipartisan framework doesn’t go far enough to address climate concerns and other Democratic issues. With the endorsement of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers caucus, enough Republicans may be on board in the House to override their objections and pass a core infrastructure bill. At the time of writing, it increasingly looks like the negotiations are back on track – at least for now.

As of our mid-July publication time, Congress is still in early stages of this complex dance between conflicting bills, complementary legislative chapters, and competing ideological agendas.

The Senate has only agreed to a much-publicized core infrastructure framework of about $1.2 trillion dollars. The legislation itself still needs to be written and agreed to before it can start moving through the chamber, which is a difficult process in itself, even for legislative experts and legions of parliamentary committee lawyers.

Congress faces an uphill battle to craft language that will appeal to moderates in both parties without shedding too many progressives and/or conservatives. Consequently, it is likely that legislative language for core infrastructure may not be introduced until July and potentially even August.

We haven’t even begun to discuss the second “social infrastructure” bill promoted by the Administration and Congressional Democrats. The multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation bill, (potentially anywhere from $2 to $6 trillion, but most recently cited as $3.5 trillion) which expands the definition of “infrastructure” to include areas such as hospital and daycare facility construction, climate change, senior living facilities, and other areas not considered traditional areas of core infrastructure, promises even more complexity, especially in the Senate. Democratic Senate leadership recognizes that this partisan bill will have to move under separate budget reconciliation rules, which are another level of parliamentary difficulty not encountered in the $1.2 trillion core infrastructure agreement. And to add on one more hurdle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has threatened to withhold a vote on the core infrastructure bill if the “social infrastructure” bill does not pass the Senate. This cumbersome bill has its own unique pitfalls but will have to be the subject of another column.

If you are confused, you’re not the only one. Key lawmakers and their staff are trying to figure out how to pass the highway bill in conjunction with, or as a part of a larger infrastructure package of some kind. And where do our industry’s bipartisan water and wastewater bills fall into this parliamentary scheme? Only time and negotiations will determine these fates, and those are both still ahead of us this year.

With surface transportation funding currently set to expire on Sept. 30th at the end of the fiscal year, it’s possible that Congress may need to pass a continuing resolution to give themselves a month or two of additional breathing room – and possibly lead to the process culminating during NUCA’s Fall Washington Summit in early November. We urge you to sign up for NUCA’s Nov. 2-3 event, as it has the potential to be one of the most exciting in years (register online at nuca.com/summit).

All-in-all, Congress has made tremendous strides towards creating a bold infrastructure investment program. The early July passage of the (imperfect) House bill – which included passage of NUCA priority clean water SRF and drinking water SRF legislation – and its Senate counterpart on April 29 was a significant hurdle cleared, but we’ve a long way to go to get this done.

NUCA Government Affairs lobbyists Eben Wyman and Zack Perconti represent NUCA’s interests on Capitol Hill.

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