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The U.S. Chamber's Vice President of Transportation and Infrastructure, Ed Mortimer joined the program to discuss the current state of play in Congress and the Chamber's advocacy efforts on behalf of the engineering industry.

 

Transcript:

 

Host:

Welcome to another edition of Engineering Influence, a podcast from the American Council of Engineering companies. Today, I am pleased to welcome Ed Mortimer to the show. Ed serves as the Vice President of transportation and infrastructure at the US Chamber of Commerce, where he oversees the development and implementation of the Chamber's, transportation and infrastructure policy, and represents the Chamber on Capitol Hill, as well as before the administration and industry organizations. In addition, Ed also leads the Americans for Transportation Mobility coalition, which is a collaborative effort by business, labor, transportation stakeholders, and concerned citizens to advocate for improved and increased federal investment in the nation's aging and overburdened transportation system. We at ACEC are members of that coalition which helps us amplify our voice to Capitol Hill. And Ed comes to the Chamber from AECOM where he served as director of government relations. So in other words, Ed knows our industry and he understands Congress and it is great to have him on the show. So welcome to Engineering Influence.

 

Ed Mortimer:

Great, Jeff, good to be with you.

 

Host:

So we were kind of talking about this beforehand, before we went live, but, you know, things are happening at least a little bit on the Hill. If you can give us a kind of an update on the legislative prospects for a surface bill, now that the House has passed their version. And of course that was dead arrival in the Senate and the Senate has been acting on their own version of not only a surface bill, but a WRDA bill. Where are things standing right now? Do you think we'll get something passed?

 

Ed Mortimer:

Well, Jeff, we're definitely in a critical moment to get something passed through the Senate. We have 63 days until the expiration of the FAST Act. And it's been over a year since the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked up their surface transportation reauthorization, the American Transportation Infrastructure Act, which was a 27% increase in highway funding. Unfortunately we haven't seen any action since then to bring the full bill to the floor. We need the banking committee who does a transit title, commerce committee, which does a safety title. And then the most critically the finance committee, which pays for the Senate bill. Since we haven't raised the gas tax in 27 years, they need to come up with $110 billion in new revenue to pay for that 27% increase in funding to date. They have not been able to do that.

 

Ed Mortimer:

We have been advocating for action on this. As you mentioned, the House of Representatives passed a bill, which unfortunately wasn't something we were very excited about in the sense that, the bill was introduced in the transportation committee and marked up in a partisan way. Not one Republican vote in committee, it was a 494 or 5 billion five-year reauthorization. And then all of a sudden, right before the bill came before it became a $1.5 trillion bill with a lot of things that I think your members. And again, the Chamber and the business community think are important, such as school construction, affordable housing. But in our view, we have an authorization bill that expires September 30th. We have divided government, so we have a Republican Senate, a Democrat House and a Republican White House. So the end of the day we need bipartisan solutions because until a bill signed into law, it doesn't do us any good.

 

Ed Mortimer:

And so our view was the House bill did not move that process forward of getting that bipartisan solution. So, but it passed, at least they got it through. Now we need the Senate to move out and then get into a House-Senate conference committee. So we urging the Senate knowing that they have a lot of things going on, or obviously working on the next COVID relief bill, they have appropriations that expire in September. But again, this is a, this is a priority that Congress is supposed to do their job. They're supposed to get these bills done in time and we need the Senate to act now, so we can get this bill into conference and get it to president's desk before September 30th.

 

Host:

Yeah, this is not something which is creeping up unexpectedly on either chamber. I mean, last Congress, the conversation was about the fiscal cliff that happened with the FAST Act and dealing with that, uh, knowing that there was going to have to be a reauthorization coming up because the law was expiring. The Senate was the first out of the gate, early on moving a surface bill. And it just seemed that the House's answer increasingly, it seems with the, you know, the polarization in Congress that you had a surface bill, but then it was run out of the Speaker's office and all these other policy provisions were tacked on and it became more of a political football and you're right. There were some things in the bill, that I think overall industry is interested in, you know, issues related to resiliency issues related to school construction, rural broadband, especially now in the post COVID working remotely kind of environment, but we need a surface bill

 

Host:

We've been looking at this over time. And infrastructure has always historically kind of been a broad bipartisan issue, but it does seem like those parts and elements have disrupted the dynamic, the T&I part - we mentioned that the process there was, was as partisan as we've ever seen it. And, you know, is this going to be the new norm? I mean, do you think that in your experience in working with Congress and this administration, just how things have developed do you think we can get back to that level of compromise and bipartisanship, or do you think we're going to be in a pitch partisan battle moving forward?

 

Ed Mortimer:

Well, I mean, I think it's gonna be a combination of both. And I will say, you know, a couple of weeks after this extremely partisan, uh, transportation bill came up, the committee unanimously approved a water resources development act, bill, and, you know, uh, on July 27th, the full h]House is going to take it up under suspension of the rules, which means two thirds vote to approve it. It should probably get 300 to 400 votes. So as painful as the surface markup and that situation was, they have come back and were able to get this WRDA bill done on a bipartisan basis. So, we are optimistic that we can get back to cause again, at the end of the day with divided government, you need bipartisan solutions. And we've always whether we had divided government or not. We've always been able to work on a bipartisan basis.

 

Ed Mortimer:

Now it may not be the same as it was 20 years ago. But we are optimistic that, you know, there's an old saying there is no Republican road or a Democrat bridge. And so at the end of the day, we have to hold our lawmakers accountable because they should work together to do the people's business. And in our view, infrastructure is a core responsibility of the federal government. You go back to the constitution, it actually requires the federal government to do two things. Now they may have wandered a bit from that, but the only two things that the constitutional part of the federal government to do is national defense and interstate commerce. And so investing in infrastructure is really critical to the backbone of our economy. And we have to hold our lawmakers accountable. We can't just let them say, well, I passed a bill through the House or we did a mark-upw. We have to tell them until it's gets signed into law engineers, don't benefit the American public. Doesn't see the fruits of the engineering industries labor until these bills get signed into law. And so we cannot accept half passage and press releases saying we just passed this 50% increase of funding because it doesn't mean anything until it's signed by the president, wherever that is. And then we can get the states the predictability of federal investment over the next several year period.

 

Host:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's, I still remember, you know, and I don't know if it's there still, because I haven't gone into the committee room, uh, since the, uh, the Congress, the new Congress, but, you know, the last Congress could be turned around after entering a room on the left hand side is Adam Smith talking about the responsibility of the sovereign to maintain commerce and infrastructure. And on the right, is the constitution, uh, specifically outlining the federal responsibility for maintaining post roads. And of course, you know, the national infrastructure, so it is a federal responsibility and you're absolutely right. We can't take half measures. We have to get a bill done because it will, it's necessary for the certainty that the states need, especially now with, with, you know, shrinking budgets, for those states to be able to do long-term planning and, you know, the programs need to be there to, to allow our economy to recover. You did mention WRDA, and I think that's an important point that the reference, because this is always the sleeper bill, it's the one that generally gets the bipartisan support. It passes with overwhelming majorities in both chambers, but it doesn't get the press that it really deserves. From your position at the Chamber, how important is that WRDA bill, you know, it's critical for water infrastructure, you know, inland waterways, port stamps, harbors, but what's the economic impact of getting a bill like that done?

 

Ed Mortimer:

Well, what WRDA does is, and Jeff, why it's really important for the engineering industry is it's 2015. Congress has done this bill every two years. And so every two years they authorize new water projects. So without that action, uh, the Corps cannot start new projects. Why is it important? Because before 2015, it was seven years until the previous authorization was done. So this is the third time in a row that Congress is on track to meeting that responsibility. What does that mean? That means that communities can make plans and investments knowing the federal government going to do this bill every two years. Um, water infrastructure is critical to so many communities throughout the country, particularly in the agricultural, the manufacturing industry. And we all know that our infrastructure systems are old at the best and our locks and dams are some of the oldest. We've been band-aiding them for 25 to 30 years. And so these water investments are really critical, so many communities, we're also looking at, you know, you talked earlier about resiliency, we're looking at natural disasters are happening. And so doing this water bill every two years allows engineers to provide the innovation and technology that they can bring to the table and we're repairing and modernizing these water systems. We can make sure the resilient to handle the new natural disasters that perhaps our forefathers 50 years ago, hadn't planned on us dealing with.

 

Host:

Yeah. So you did mention earlier the, um, pandemic response bill, do you think that infrastructure investment like support for state DoT or local transit agency airports or other sectors might be included as a portion of that bill?

 

Ed Mortimer:

Well, it has to, okay. Our transportation systems have suffered substantially since the pandemic started. We shut down most of this country. Um, some parts of this country now we're going through a mini second shutdown. Um, the revenue sources for state DoTs is dried up significantly. AASHTO has said that they need an additional $37 billion to continue projects through the next year. Um, transit agencies have submitted proposal for $32 billion. Um, the heroes act, which passed the house includes 15 billion for state DoTs and 15 billion for transit agencies. Um, the Senate bill that McConnell has started the process of putting out there only includes $10 billion for airports. But I can tell you that we need, we will fight very hard and vigorously to ensure that any final product includes funding for those state DoTs, for those transit agencies in the airports, because they have suffered not because of anything they did, but because of a pandemic, that's a federal response has to take place to ensure that we're able to continue the business.

 

Ed Mortimer:

So many engineers have been able to continue work. They're essential workers. We be able to actually in several States move projects faster because of a lack of traffic on some of the infrastructure. So we actually have an opportunity here to take advantage of this unfortunate situation, to maybe expedite some infrastructure projects in a more timely manner. So it's a combination, all of us to ensure that the Senate, uh, the ball's in their court, the house passed a bill Baldwin Senate court. They need to come together. They need to ensure that this type of funding is available. Cause whether we get in long-term reauthorization of the fast app or an extension of this program without state match we're going to see a reduction in projects at the, at the, at the, on all levels of government. So it's critical that we urge the Senate to include this as this process moves forward.

 

Host:

Yeah, absolutely. And that's something that's been a core focus of our digital advocacy effort. Of course, we were hoping to have a spring convention and legislative fly in as normal, but COVID disrupted that. So we switched over to a virtual advocacy campaign, which was successful in the House. And of course our target is right now is the Senate. And our grassroots advocates have been very, very vocal and sending messages to their members of the Senate and also organizing meetings, virtual meetings over zoom and other formats. What has the Chamber have been doing in terms of grassroots activities to support those objectives?

 

Ed Mortimer:

So we've been very active, you know, educating our members about what's going on. Um, we've actually started a social media campaign where we have a calendar every day. It's, you know, I mentioned 63 days, to the expiration, we remind lawmakers every day, they haven't acted and that the clock is ticking. We actually have on our website, let's rebuild america dot com. We have a ticker that shows the hours, the minutes, the days that are taking now, um, for action. Um, and so like your members, we've learned to kind of change our advocacy. It's no longer um, just our folks walking the halls of Congress, but it's doing zoom. Uh, it's being involved in social media campaigns. You know, we're still talking to members of Congress and their staffs in a different way. Um, but to be honest with you, it's, it's still effective.

 

Ed Mortimer:

They still hear it. And I know engineers have a lot on their plate right now, but we need you to step up and have your voice heard these members of Congress need to hear how many jobs your company has, uh, what projects you're working on and what are the opportunities that may go away if they don't act. Um, it does make a difference and telling our story is really going to be critical in next three weeks where there's so much noise in Washington, right. We watched the news and we know the ongoing pandemic. Um, but making sure that our voice is heard, that the lawmakers truly understand the ramifications of not acting to invest in infrastructure. Uh, it's really to make the difference whether we get the right amount of funding in this next bill or not.

 

Host:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you turn on the television it's wall to wall COVID-19 coverage. You look at the major newspapers and they talk about, you know, the issues going on around the country. Um, and it doesn't seem like this is getting a lot of play, but honestly, the people who matter are paying attention and the best way to cut through the noise, cut through the media cycle is to get to them directly, um, either a message by email or a request for a zoom meeting. The ones that we've had have been very successful and the members have been very receptive meeting because we're able to amplify our voice. You can never get, let's say 50 people into a Senate office or 50 people into a House office. Now with zoom, you can have as many people as you want on that meeting with that member of Congress.

 

Host:

And you can essentially have a full fly in and one meeting virtually. So it's of critical importance. Um, also the ATM coalition, which is something that we've been involved with. Um, you know, you see a lot of the social media activity going on our page. Uh, we always retweet the messages and we, and we try to drive people over to the website, um, which is for the coalition it's, it's faster, better, safer, safer. So our faster, better, safer. Yes, I know exactly. I always get caught up on that. Tell us a little bit more about that coalition in some of the, some of the things that it's focused in on.

 

Ed Mortimer

Yeah. So we started this coalition, um, and it's been around for a while. And, and what we decided was, you can't just have the engineers, the construction industry, go up to the Hill and continue to ask for funding. We need to broaden the coalition. And so the goal of the coalition was let's bring organized labor in, let's bring other parts of the business, community retailers, Farm Bureau. And so we're trying to widen the coalition of stakeholders that understand the importance of infrastructure. And so ACEC and their membership in it allows us to do those activities. And then Jeff as you mentioned, we're able to kind of amplify all of our messages in this world of Twitter and so much noise, uh, being able to have colleagues to amplify the message are really important. Um, and so the coalition does that. We partner with folks, we tell the story of members all over this country.

 

Ed Mortimer:

And so ATM really is focused on from it from a grassroots campaign and on the outside in, so we hear stories around the country. We try to tell those stories to the members of Congress, um, you know, ACEC's got a great Capitol Hill office, and you guys work the inside the beltway, we partner with you guys on many of those efforts, but again, it's working inside the beltway and combining that with an outside the beltway campaign, to make sure that we're bringing the vast array of resources that we have, and we pull them together and pulling them together. We're able to be more effective than if we just do all of our, do our own campaign. So, you know, I really love what you guys do. Um, your membership has been extremely active. Um, I know it, cause I hear from members of Congress all the time hearing about what ACEC members were just in your chapters are very active at the state level.

 

Ed Mortimer:

And you've been, the chapters have been very effective at the state level raising revenue. We need to take some of the lessons learned at those state campaigns and bring it to Washington because so much of Washington tells us why they can't do something. Engineers know how we can do something. And we just have to remind these folks. And then we got to hold them accountable, whether they're Republican or Democrat, um, too many times, they tell us what we want to hear and they don't do anything after the meeting. So when you meet the zoom meeting, follow up with them and say, okay, you promised me X, Y, and Z, where are you at on those promises? Where's the bill? Has it been approved? Is the bill going to the White House? because it doesn't help you and remembers if we don't get these things done. So again, I think bringing all these resources to the table that none of the organizations that care about this can do it on their own, but together we really are bringing that large stakeholder community that can make a difference.

 

Host:

Yeah. If you were able to bring the engineering sector of the economy together with the construction sector of the economy and then the labor that actually gets it all done and have a unified voice it's practically unbeatable because you you're covering all fronts. Um, and I, and I think that's a good point. I mean, from, from the perspective of our state chapters, you know, they're working very hard on their own issues at the state legislative level, but if there's a success that, and this was kind of a call for stories, if there's a success that you've had at your state level to let us know, so we can filter it up because success at the state level translates to success in the federal level, because the members of Congress from that state delegation pay attention to what happens in the state house. And if you're able to go back and say, Hey, in Pennsylvania or Illinois, we were able to do this. So Mr. Senator or Congressman, it's not impossible, and this is how we did it. Um, it all feeds together and we all kind of self-support. So, uh, anyone out there listening who as a story or as a kind of a case study, make sure to let us know so we can get it to Ed. We can get it to people at the ATM coalition and kind of get that communicated to Congress.

 

Ed Mortimer:

Yeah. Jeff, if I could make one more point on that, the other thing is we see a lot of state officials come to Congress. So, you know, when they hear these stories, a lot of these folks that have, are now coming to Congress, we're seeing more and more of them say, Hey, I, I worked with the engineers on getting a gas tax raise or a sales tax raised. And that's going to be very helpful as we continue to grow base of support in this Congress to make the real investments that are required. So that's why in another way that, you know, these folks that end up at the state level, they find their way to DC. So cultivating those relationships and keeping them going is going to be really critical.

 

Host:

Absolutely. Well, before I let you go, I've got to ask a NEPA question because, you know, this has been n one of the administration's main focuses policy-wise from a regulatory standpoint, so I know that the Chamber supported the administration's NEPA reform, um, and of course the streamlining of project delivery, which is crucial. Why do you think it's important to the business community in general? And do you think that the changes in the NEPA regulations will make it through legislative and judicial challenges?

 

Ed Mortimer:

So good question. So, you know, look, the Chamber believes we need to modernize our infrastructure. That also means we need to modernize the way that we deliver projects to the engineers on the frontline of the challenges in the permitting process. Almost 20% of the cost of many major federal projects is due to the planning approval process. And NEPA has been used by our opponents to delay and stop projects. And that's not what NEPA was meant to do. NEPA was meant to encourage public participation and to make sure environmental regulations are being met, um, engineers that work on products today, I guarantee you any project at any ACEC members working on is going to make the infrastructure more environmentally sensitive than what it replaced, just because innovation and technology that engineers bring to the table. And you're replacing an infrastructure that was built 50 years ago or longer.

 

Ed Mortimer:

So the reality is, is that we need to show the business community because the business community is willing to pay more for infrastructure. As you know, we've been out there saying we need to adjust the fuel tax, but if we do adjust the fuel tax, we also need to show the business community that we're going to use limited dollars more effectively. And so we did support the administration's executive order on tightening up, uh, the NEPA requirements. Um, again, it doesn't change the NEPA law and there's some misconception out there. Uh, it does not change the law. It just changes the way federal agencies implement NEPA, and it provides some reasonable timelines for it. And while the Mark dental community and others have raised a lot of objections to it, um, actually in the Senate EPW bill that I mentioned that moved through the committee on a 21 to zero vote, um, that was sponsored by Senator Carper of Delaware.

 

Ed Mortimer:

It includes language that would put a two year time limit on lawsuits, on NEPA projects, um, Democrats and Republicans in the last two surface transportation bills have supported, you know, ways to kind of expedite permit approvals. So again, we believe this needs to be done without changing environmental law without cutting corners, but putting reasonable timelines. And if the answer is no, we'd rather see limited dollars go to projects that get to yes. And so again, if we're going to make the major investments necessary to modernize, we have to figure out a way to modernize these rules. So, you know, the administration just made an announcement that they finalize these rules. Um, they're going into litigation, um, as all of these things always do. Um, you know, do you believe that it's solidly, it should last that now obviously if there's an election this fall, um, there could be a change in an executive order, and that's why we wanted to get the Senate bill codified into law because a law is a lot harder to change than an Executive Order. And so that's one of the other reasons that we want to push to get that Senate bill done. Um, because getting that enacted into law this year would make sure that it's going to last where the Executive Order, if there does happen to be a new administration, it's pretty easy for them to just eliminate that Executive Order.

 

Host:

Yeah, that's, that's a really good summary because I think that a lot of people are following it, but they're not following it too closely, but it is all about keeping the pipeline open for projects. It's about easing burdensome regulations. It's not about undermining environmental quality or protections, but about getting projects from paper to completion faster. That benefits the local level all the way up to of course, the federal bottom line. So, that's very important. Ed, is there, is there anything that we didn't cover that you want to make sure that our listeners know? I mean, this is a great opportunity to hear from the Chamber.

 

Ed Mortimer:

Sure. Well, one thing I wanted to let you know, the engineers know that there's a couple of things that Chamber's really going to be advocating for in the next COVID relief bill. Um, one is liability protection, making sure that businesses that are following CDC and other health guidance, um, don't have frivolous lawsuits, as long as they're showing they're doing the right thing. Uh, making sure that we extend the PPP program, uh, and work to make sure that our businesses are able to survive through this very challenging time that did not come from anything they did. We also want to make sure, as we talked about state and local governments get resources to make up for some of the lost revenue that they had. Um, and we it's really critical that we get these done before they leave for the August recess. Um, you know, in our view, they shouldn't go on recess until this is done.

Ed Mortimer:

Some of these programs, actually the PPP program, the unemployment insurance, additional funding expires this Friday. And so we have to hold these lawmakers feet to the fire. Um, it's been a challenging start in Senate where at this point there's probably not 50 votes for the initial proposal that was put out there. It's going to be a lot of horse trading, um, but we have to keep our eye on the ball and remind our lawmakers, stop the partisanship. Uh, you have to do the right thing on behalf of the American people. Businesses need some certainty that these things are going to be locked into place. And so, you know, this is something that is really critical to all businesses. But I know in the engineering business, a lot of engineering companies took advantage of PPP, and we want to ensure that you're able to keep your employees through this very difficult time. We want to make sure there's government support there - very timely and targeted. So these aren't just longterm extensions, but timely and targeted to help businesses get through this pandemic. So urging you all to talk to your lawmakers about that and ensuring that they get this done before they leave for the August recess.

 

Host:

Absolutely. And those are issues that we will be joining you with, and helping you to advocate for, uh, throughout, um, the current session of Congress. And hopefully they do get this done before leaving for recess. And if they don't, they, they shouldn't go. Um, this is, this is critically important for the economy and for the industry. So, um, there's a lot to do. Um, if you're listening out there, you have a voice, make it, um, follow a Ed on Twitter at Chamber Moves - @ChamberMoves, and that's his Twitter feed, the ATM Coalition, faster, better, safer, that's www dot faster, better, safer.org, check them out and stay with us. And, uh, we'll keep you informed ed. I really appreciate you coming on the show. Uh, love to have you on when we get closer to the lecture and kind of maybe, uh, uh, look at, you know, the two potential outcomes and kind of where we might be going from an infrastructure standpoint. I'm a little too early to tell. We need to get Congress moving first before we can talk about that. Absolutely. Well, glad to glad to do that and good to be with you. All, everybody stays safe and let's keep busy. Yep.

 

Host:

Great. Stay safe and enjoy, uh, I guess the, the, the hot sweltering DC weather.

 

Ed Mortimer:

Right.

 

Host:

But thank you again, ed. And you've been listening to engineering influence from ACEC.

 

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