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Lobbyists Closely Following Reauthorization Money

To earmark or not to earmark?

Much to the dismay of lobbyists, that’s the question undoubtedly swirling through the mind of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) these days as he ponders a $500 billion plan to reshape the nation’s roads, rail lines and waterways.

By early spring, the Gopher State lawmaker is expected to introduce a follow-up to the $244 billion transportation reauthorization bill signed by President George W. Bush in 2005.

But unlike reauthorizations in years past — which were essentially wish lists of construction projects identified by lawmakers — the chairman is making bold promises that this year’s bill will be a break from the norm.

And that’s part of what has lobbyists so worried. The other part: No one knows exactly how these transportation measures will be paid for. Either way, the reauthorization — a term Oberstar has shied away from — is sure to dominate the committee’s workload for the next several months.

For now, Oberstar remains quiet on the details of the transportation plan, particularly regarding his earmarking policy for the upcoming legislation. Complicating matters, the Obama administration continues to evade the topic, with a spokesman telling reporters late last month that the White House does not have a blanket prohibition against earmarking.

“Without having looked specifically at a piece of legislation, I’m hesitant to throw out the word — that four-letter word — ‘veto,’” Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said at a press briefing.

So how do legislators and the executive branch reconcile a distaste for the practice with the need for outlining priorities in the bill? Transportation experts and lobbyists are unsure, arguing that there are inherent quandaries in creating coherent transportation policy outside of the tried-and-true earmarking process.

“Certainly we’ve got no indication from the committee that they plan not to do earmarks,” says Janet Kavinoky, a transportation lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “With that said, there’s a widespread recognition that rampant earmarking will not help engender the public support for increasing funding.

“One of things that the public seems focused on is that they want accountability and transparency,” she continued. “They want to know where their dollars are going and I think they want them to make a real difference.”

Another transportation lobbyist said privately that the White House should establish markers now on its earmarking policy for the rewrite. Without it, chaos could ensue.

“They’re going to start from scratch. They’re tearing the whole thing up and going to build it back up,” the lobbyist said. Oberstar “wants to work hand in hand with the administration to avoid the whole earmark dilemma. … The problem is, as we saw with the [stimulus] legislation, the administration didn’t do anything until the last minute.”

“If that happens with this transportation bill, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” the lobbyist added. “Hopefully, the administration will take a firmer hand in helping Chairman Oberstar with his goals.”

In other words: Expect the unexpected.

Oberstar “wants to get away from the Transportation Efficiency Act,” said Hill & Knowlton Inc. lobbyist and former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. “What he wants to do is to set a new course given the realities of 2009, in terms of the growth in population, in terms of the growth of our economy, and to try and set a new course in terms of funding mechanism and in terms of the substance of the legislation.”

Despite the uncertainty, said transportation lobbyist Martin Whitmer, a former Department of Transportation aide in the Bush administration, it’s unlikely earmarks will disappear entirely from the eventual bill. Instead, Whitmer speculated, a pared-back legislative grocery list would be coupled with innovative ways of paying for the new pavement.

“These Members know what projects need to be done in their districts, so I would be surprised if it were taken away completely,” he said. “My hope is that they’re going to be able to take care of these Members and their specific projects.”

Whitmer also said that funding could become a major sticking point, if lawmakers and Obama don’t arrive at some agreement on how to pay for the $500 billion legislation. The administration recently backtracked from statements made by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who suggested that the government impose an annual levy on individual automobile usage.

“How are you going to fund this thing is the $1,000 question,” Whitmer said. “There’s chance you’ll get a gas tax, there’s a chance you’ll get vehicle miles traveled and then, hopefully, you’ll get public-private ventures involved.”

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