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Biden may call out airlines, tout infrastructure funding at SOTU

President can also tout infrastructure law, which will get plenty of oversight by Republicans

The FAA system outage in January and the so-called “Southwest meltdown” over the holidays has strengthened calls for FAA overhaul and more passenger protections, which Biden is likely to echo in his State of the Union address.
The FAA system outage in January and the so-called “Southwest meltdown” over the holidays has strengthened calls for FAA overhaul and more passenger protections, which Biden is likely to echo in his State of the Union address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Congress sets its sights on aviation policies and oversight of the White House’s implementation of infrastructure and energy transition investments, President Joe Biden could echo Democrats’ demands for airline passenger protections, dig into aviation safety and lean on key infrastructure law projects as part of his State of the Union address.

Biden took the White House with big promises for transportation — he released goals early on to cut greenhouse emissions from the transportation sector by 2050, highlighting the need to address the country’s infrastructure backlog and promote public transit, vowing to create jobs along the way.

Since his last State of the Union address, Congress passed the Democrats’ budget reconciliation law, which included electric vehicle tax incentives and other key climate provisions, and the administration has had a year to begin implementing the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law.

Biden is likely to underscore the importance of implementing those laws, especially as Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., continues to bash the Treasury Department’s guidance on EV tax credits and House Republicans promise to use their new majority to focus oversight on infrastructure law spending.

At a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Feb. 1, industry leaders welcomed Republicans’ oversight agenda while GOP lawmakers continued to criticize the administration for “overstepping” on interpretation of the law.

“It is incumbent on Congress and in particular, this committee, to ensure the money from [infrastructure law] is spent responsibly and is directed toward making our nation’s transportation supply chain more efficient and resilient,” Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., said during the hearing. “We owe it to the American people to do just that.”

Manchin, who called for strict sourcing requirements to boost domestic manufacturing and energy security before he’d sign on to EV tax credits in the reconciliation bill, also took the floor earlier last week to bash the Treasury for delaying implementation of the critical mineral sourcing requirements until it has honed its guidance, which is expected in March. 

“We’re getting different interpretations from Treasury and from other agencies that have oversight, which is so wrong,” Manchin said. “It’s not their job to interpret what they want in a piece of legislation. Their job is basically to enforce what we wrote in legislation.”

Biden could respond by touting key infrastructure projects funded by the legislation over the past few months, with a special focus on opportunities for new jobs, supply chain recovery, advancing clean energy transitions and boosting public transit.

The address will come on the heels of Biden’s visits in the past month to infamous bottlenecks, including the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky as well as the Gateway project on the rail corridor in New York and New Jersey, to trumpet infrastructure law investments to fund repair projects.

“I ran for president to build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, to bring back good paying jobs you can raise a family on whether or not you went to college,” Biden said during a visit to an aging train tunnel in Baltimore on Jan. 30. “[This] project will lead to 20,000 good paying construction jobs — laborers, electricians, carpenters, cement masons, iron workers, operating engineers and so much more.”

‘Year of aviation’

Jeff Davis, senior fellow at think-tank Eno Center for Transportation, said that 2023 was already scheduled to be the “year of aviation policy” as Congress looks to pass Federal Aviation Administration authorization legislation before funding expires in September. The FAA system outage in January and the so-called “Southwest meltdown” over the holidays has only strengthened calls for FAA overhaul and more passenger protections, which Biden is likely to echo.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have already promised to address the FAA outage as part of the agency’s authorization package. Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, said it’s clear that “significant improvements across the aviation system are needed.”

A group of Democrats have also been calling for stringent passenger protections against unwarranted fees and charges, including provisions that would bar airlines from shrinking seat sizes and require the Government Accountability Office to investigate “lack of meaningful competition” in the airline industry. 

Biden promised last year to crack down on airlines’ treatment of passengers and also has proposed rules to increase pricing transparency, adding that he had requested that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “call them out.”

Besides that, Davis said to expect mention of a safer, faster, more efficient and greener national airspace system, as well as drone integration, in the address.

“Any focus on transportation will probably be regulatory in nature — making the Bad Guys pay — because regulations don’t require much new money,” Davis added.

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