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Congress tees up FAA, pipeline safety, rail, supply chain bills

Aug 20, 2023Aug 20, 2023

Transportation leaders in Congress are queuing up a host of bills over the summer legislative season aimed at overhauling the aviation system, reauthorizing pipeline infrastructure programs, ramping up rail safety and addressing supply chain woes and competition with China.

Although there's bipartisan agreement on some pieces of must-pass legislation, like the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, the House and the Senate's differing priorities on topics like consumer protections and energy policy could delay their delivery to President Joe Biden's desk.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., has said his committee will take on proposals over the next few months to mend the U.S. supply chain and protect domestic energy security, continuing House Republicans’ agenda against what Graves in a May op-ed in The Washington Times called the Biden administration's "big spending, anti-energy" actions.

Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and other Democrats in the chamber have their own agenda, one that includes more funding for green infrastructure projects and directing agencies to consider more safety and industry oversight regulations.

The most pressing legislation for both Graves and Cantwell is the reauthorization of the FAA. Current authority is set to expire Sept. 30.

Both committee leaders have devoted multiple hearings to the package with a focus on increasing safety, strengthening the aviation workforce and modernizing the agency. Both have said they are working with ranking members Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to bring a bipartisan FAA reauthorization package to their chamber floors.

Graves said in an interview that he expects the House and Senate FAA packages to be "very different" despite bipartisan support within each chamber. He expects Cantwell's to be much more focused on consumer protections, especially as she and other Democrats have backed bills aimed at eliminating airlines’ "junk fees" and ensuring that passengers get fair compensation. The House version, he said, will be more "technical."

"There's not going to be nearly as [many] problems between House Republicans and Democrats as I see between the House and Senate versions, and we’ll have to conference to try to work that out," Graves said. Cantwell has "laid out a little bit of information … but it's hard to tell" by how much it will differ.

Cantwell has said she intends to include a "passengers’ bill of rights" in the FAA reauthorization package, adding that she supports full funding and staffing for the Transportation Department's Office of Aviation Consumer Protection to make the provisions "stick."

Cruz, who had expressed concerns with passenger protection provisions, said in an interview last week that he's "quite optimistic" the Senate bill will remain bipartisan, adding that his team is negotiating with Cantwell's "as we speak."

Graves said he expects to mark up the House bill this month and bring it to the floor in July. The Senate will have to adopt a similar timeline to pass the legislation before August recess.

The Biden administration also has yet to nominate someone to lead the FAA after acting Administrator Billy Nolen announced he is stepping down in mid-June. Biden's previous nominee, Phil Washington, withdrew from consideration in March. The Wall Street Journal reported that Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg could take over the agency as an interim leader, although that hadn't been officially announced as of Monday.

Both committees will also write and consider legislation that would reauthorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The agency's authority expires on Sept. 30.

The House effort is still in its early stages, according to staffers familiar with it, but pipeline safety advocates are hoping lawmakers will address constraints on the agency's regulatory powers.

Erin Sutherland, policy counsel at nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, said her group is advocating for Congress to eliminate the non-application clause in PHMSA's statutory authority, which bars the agency from mandating that owners retrofit existing pipelines to adhere to new safety standards. Also, the group is hoping to change safety statutes that don't expressly prohibit the release of gas or hazardous liquids from a pipeline.

"So even if a major failure occurs — like for example, in 2013 — there was a big failure in Arkansas that caused 134,000 gallons of oil to spill into a neighborhood and ruin homes and yards and ruin a wetland," she said. "That's not technically a violation of any standard."

Sutherland added that Democrats such as Cantwell, Larsen and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. have been supportive of pipeline safety advocates’ provisions in the past. Cantwell and Graves have yet to announce any specific priorities or timelines for the legislation.

Rail safety legislation, born out of the February derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is likely to head to the Senate floor in the coming months. But Cruz, who opposed the bill in committee, has warned it won't get the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate, let alone the Republican-controlled House.

"I’m very concerned about giving broad authority to the Biden administration," Cruz said at the bill's markup. "President Biden and Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg would have a free hand to aggressively restrict the movement of coal, oil, natural gas and other essential commodities."

It's also not clear if the House will take up the legislation. Graves has said he intends to wait for the final National Transportation Safety Board report on the East Palestine derailment before taking on relevant legislation.

Ranking member Larsen sent Graves a letter in May pushing for the committee to hold a hearing on rail safety and potentially consider the Senate bill or its House companion. But Graves has yet to announce any future action on the topic.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., launched an initiative in May to write a bipartisan China competition bill that builds on provisions enacted in last year's research and semiconductor manufacturing package. The bill, Schumer said, would include provisions aimed at strengthening U.S. manufacturing for sectors like electric vehicles and clean energy.

"Last Congress, we made historic progress to rebuild our infrastructure, position the United States as a global leader in the fight against climate change, and spur the creation of clean energy manufacturing jobs across our nation," Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said in a statement. "Now, we have an opportunity to build on that progress with bipartisan legislation to make our nation more competitive globally and reduce our reliance on foreign adversaries."

Countering Chinese influence in infrastructure, transportation and energy supply chains have also been key to House Republicans’ discussions on energy security, especially as they argue that Biden and Democrats’ push for electric vehicles, domestic critical minerals and clean energy will only increase U.S. reliance on China.

Schumer said committee leaders in the chamber have committed to holding hearings and markups to shepherd his China package along. It's too soon to tell what kind of supply chain fixes or electric vehicle provisions would be included in the bill, but it's clear Graves is taking a different approach to supply chain legislation.

Graves is focusing on stand-alone legislation that addresses specific trucking, ocean shipping, permitting and infrastructure issues. The panel approved 17 supply chain bills in a May 23 markup that are awaiting floor consideration, and a staffer familiar with the bills said there were other supply chain proposals not addressed in the previous markup that could be up for consideration this summer.

"Unlike what we’ve seen in the previous two years, we will not push through one massive package with nobody really knowing what is in it," Graves wrote in the op-ed, jabbing at packages like last year's China competition package. "Our solutions will come in the form of standalone, targeted bills including measures that can attract bipartisan support."