GOP Demands a Stop to Stim Spending. What Will It Mean for Rail Projects?

The top Republican currently on the Appropriations Committee wants to take back stimulus funds promised to states and localities for much-needed infrastructure programs, including more than $6 billion in transportation funding. High-speed rail projects would take an especially big hit under the plan.

California high speed rail could be especially at risk if Republicans rescind stimulus funds. Image: ##http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/gallery_statewide_01.aspx##CA High Speed Rail Authority#

California's high speed rail program could be especially at risk if Congress rescinds stimulus funds. Image: CA High Speed Rail Authority#

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) has introduced H.R. 6403, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Rescissions Act, a bill to rescind the stimulus dollars that haven’t been obligated yet. Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), set to take the helm of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD, is a proud co-sponsor.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, $16 billion of those unobligated funds are for infrastructure, including about $6.3 billion for transportation. In total, 16 percent of stimulus dollars remain unobligated, and 14 percent of transportation funds.

As Ken Orski of Innovation Briefs notes, the $1.2 billion of rail grants to Wisconsin and Ohio could be added to that sum if the governors-elect of those states move forward with their plans to kill rail projects there. Orski adds, “Some of the $24 billion in ARRA transportation dollars that have been obligated but not yet paid out, including some TIGER grants, could also be candidates for rescission.”

Only 67 percent of stimulus funds have been paid out so far – but that’s not by accident. It was supposed to be a three-year plan, and it hasn’t been quite two years since it was enacted. So they’re right on schedule.

No matter: 29 Republicans (so far) have signed on to Lewis’ bill, saying they want unspent stimulus dollars to go back into the Treasury. Where will that money come from? Speculation has centered on high-speed rail projects, already being targeted by Republicans as “wasteful spending.”

The San Jose Mercury News says that rail would be the disproportionate loser in the rescissions game. “About half the remaining stimulus money is set aside for planned high-speed rail projects,” writes Mercury reporter Mike Rosenberg. “The largest is in California, which has spent nearly $200 million of its $2.25 billion award on planning but is saving the rest for construction.” Without the stimulus funds it’s been promised, the whole project could fall apart.

Before we get too Chicken-Little about this possibility, let’s remember a few things about the legislative process. First, this bill is being introduced at the tail end of the session, and during a busy lame duck, meaning it likely won’t come up for a vote. Second, it’s been referred to three committees: Appropriations, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Oversight & Government Reform – and there’s no way those committees will make quick work of this. Third, it only has 29 co-sponsors – out of 435 members of the House, which still, until January 3, has a Democratic majority. Fourth, the Senate is still controlled by Democrats – even after January.

And finally, do you think President Obama will sign this into law and undermine one of his most dramatic achievements? Not likely.

However, infrastructure supporters should take note. If nothing else, the introduction of the bill is a sign of the anti-spending fever that’s taken hold of the Republican party – and spreading to the Democrats. Given that they all pay lip service to the need for more job creation, it’s troubling that they would even think of weakening the stimulus with unemployment still at 9.6 percent.