The presumptive chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aims to keep a skeptical eye on the Biden administration’s implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law after the 118th Congress convenes in January.
Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the panel’s ranking member in the current Congress, called the 2021 infrastructure measure “a vehicle for the administration’s woke agenda” and was among 200 House Republicans to vote against the legislation.
Graves said he would also prioritize updates for the federal permitting process and aviation workforce rules in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The current authorization expires at the end of fiscal 2023.
Graves has served in Congress since 2001 and has sat on the committee since arriving on Capitol Hill, making him the most senior Republican on the panel. The House Republican Conference unanimously elected him to be ranking member in 2018. No other GOP committee members have publicly expressed interest in the chairmanship.
Republican opposition to the White House’s implementation of the bill blossomed out of a December 2021 Federal Highway Administration memo that encouraged states to follow a philosophy that Congress trashed in the final iteration of the bill: To focus federal funds on maintaining existing roads before expanding capacity.
The language in the memo went “far beyond the language of the law” and discourages states from choosing projects based on their own priorities, Graves wrote in a September letter to DOT. He also accused the agency of trying to “get a second bite at the apple” after the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The memo is “a good example of this administration twisting the intent of IIJA to focus on their own climate-focused priorities instead of conforming with the letter of the law,” a Graves spokesperson said. “The utility and feasibility of [electric vehicles] and EV infrastructure in a district like [Graves’] — districts with large areas and many smaller communities, and the need to power large trucks and farm equipment with traditional fuels — are very different compared to some other parts of the country. They shouldn’t be enforcing a one-size-fits-all agenda.”
The spokesperson added that Graves will also likely focus on oversight of the One Federal Decision codified in the package, which requires the Transportation Department to streamline the project permitting process.
“Permitting reform” has become a common buzz phrase on Capitol Hill since West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III attempted to attach legislation to the climate and social spending package that would have created timelines for how long environmental reviews of large-scale infrastructure projects can take. In the face of Democratic resistance, Manchin’s legislation was not included in the bill, though he is believed to be looking for another must-pass bill to attach it to during the lame-duck session.
Whether Manchin’s or other legislation advances, there appears to be bipartisan support for an overhaul of the permitting process.
The administration has provided $185 billion for nearly 6,900 projects in the first year of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But state transportation departments, contractors and other infrastructure providers are still waiting to receive more guidance on the streamlined approval process from the White House, said Dean Franks, senior vice president of congressional relations at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, an industry organization.
“Congress has already done the work,” he said. “What we need is for the administration to implement the One Federal Decision process so that we can see if this will work, if this will really cut down on the timeline, and how long it takes to get a project from conception to shovels in the ground.”
Graves has been critical of the Biden administration’s implementation of permitting streamlining measures, saying in a statement that the White House plan for the process is “just lip service about infrastructure project permitting.”
“If you look at what the Administration has actually been doing over the last two years, they have been adding more red tape, rolling back previous streamlining reforms, and creating roadblocks to moving forward,” he continued. “Today’s plan is something else entirely [from the One Federal Decision] — it’s just another attempt by the administration to ignore the law as it was written, focus on accelerating the projects that fit its woke agenda and further dilute federal dollars for infrastructure projects.”
Graves is also likely to focus on Amtrak, which received nearly $41.5 billion from the infrastructure law. In a November letter to Amtrak, Graves demanded a staff briefing on Amtrak awarding executive annual bonuses of $200,000 despite the corporation’s adjusted operating earnings being negative $1 billion in fiscal 2021.
Pilot in command
The committee is also looking ahead toward the five-year reauthorization of the FAA, which includes provisions for airline safety, flight standards and workforce protections, among others.
Graves brings a “unique perspective” to the FAA reauthorization process, his spokesperson said. The Missouri Republican is a professional pilot and avid flyer, and, like many pilots, is “frustrated with the long wait times and bureaucracy” that come with flying, the spokesperson added.
Although FAA reauthorization is historically a bipartisan bill, the aviation industry particularly became a target during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to an uptick in complaints of delays and travel conditions as well as calls for workforce reforms for flight attendants and pilots. Graves is committed to keeping the process bipartisan, the spokesperson said, but the pandemic experience is likely to bring up new conversations about “unruly” passengers and workforce overhauls.
A spokesperson for Graves said he intends to prioritize pilot and workforce retention, adding that he has plans to include the first stand-alone general aviation title aimed at introducing more people to careers in aviation.
Besides that, Biden and Democrats are likely to push for provisions aimed at promoting net-zero emissions in the industry, like funding for sustainable aviation fuels programs — a biofuel alternative to jet fuel that’s been a focus of the Biden administration. Graves’ spokesperson did not comment specifically on his support of sustainable aviation fuels but said “we can’t afford to stifle growth” of newer technologies, including drones and Advanced Air Mobility, an air transport system concept that integrates new aircraft designs and flight technologies into existing and modified airspace operations.
Graves would replace Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio as chair of the committee. DeFazio has led Democrats on the panel since he was elected ranking member in 2015 and announced his retirement from Congress in 2021. It’s not clear yet who will replace Graves as ranking member, although Washington Rep. Rick Larsen, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton have both expressed interest in leading the committee previously.