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Climate Politics Almanac: Budget & Transportation

Contenders to be the top Democrat on the House Committee on Budget and Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Continuing our look at the changing of the guard in the House Democratic caucus, with the leadership for the Committee on Budget and Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.


Congressional Budget Office Oversight

House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) is retiring, leaving open an important position for overseeing an agency with enormous (undue) influence over virtually everything the legislative branch does: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Another major perk of the top Budget Committee job is automatic membership on the important Steering and Policy Committee, although several senior Budget Committee Democrats already enjoy that privilege. 

As the “pace of climate change sends economists back to the drawing board,” the scientific (and economic!) community is finding that the social cost of carbon has been dramatically underpriced for many years. Since the Biden administration took office, regulators have warned that climate change poses a threat to the financial system, and it would make sense for the CBO to integrate climate into its budget and fiscal impact analysis. CBO director Philip Swagel, a former Republican Treasury official and chief of staff to George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, is serving his final year of a four-year term, which expires in January 2023. Next year, the House Speaker and Senate President pro tem will either renew Swagel’s term or announce a new CBO director, based on the recommendations of the House and Senate Budget Chairs. 

Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is moving over to chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and will be replaced as Budget Chair by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a longtime advocate for strong climate action, who has introduced legislation around factoring in the social and health costs of climate, and thus seems positioned to probe Swagel and CBO’s methodology with respect to climate. Unfortunately, custom dictates that whoever wins the Republican House Budget race (contenders are Jason Smith of Missouri, Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania, Buddy Carter of Georgia, and Jodey Arrington of Texas) will primarily get to make the decision over Swagel’s reappointment.

Brendan Boyle

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.)

The frontrunner to lead the House Budget Democrats is reportedly Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who pushed to assign responsibility for lifting the debt ceiling to the Treasury Secretary last year, and recently led a letter urging congressional leadership to take action over the lame-duck session to reform the process for raising the debt ceiling. Republicans engaged in deeply damaging debt-ceiling brinkmanship during Barack Obama’s presidency, and have promised to do so again to force spending cuts as well as Medicare and Social Security privatization. President Biden was dismissive of Boyle’s proposal, saying that abolishing the debt-ceiling (which serves no purpose other than to bring periodic threats of economic calamity) would be “irresponsible.” Boyle also sits on the Ways and Means Committee, and is a member both of the New Democrat Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). He has referred to himself as a “bridge” between the two caucuses. Boyle has a 97% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), though he did vote against a 2017 amendment to restore funding to the EPA’s environmental justice program. 

Brian Higgins

Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.)

Another senior Democrat on the Committee who may run for the top spot is Buffalo Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.). While serving in the New York State Assembly from 1999-2004, Higgins reportedly “consistently voted pro-life,” then adopted a pro-choice position upon deciding to run for Congress. A New Democrat, Higgins’ voting record is square in the median for the Democratic caucus, although he seems to be slightly to the right of the caucus on a few key budget and economic regulatory issues. In 2021, Rep. Higgins filed a comment supporting M&T’s acquisition of People’s United, which made banking markets in New York moderately more concentrated, and pushed M&T over $200 billion in assets, exemplifying the kind of regional “stadium bank” consolidation that critics of Trump-era financial deregulation warned would occur.

In 2018, Higgins voted against LCV when he supported a bill to weaken review of nuclear waste facilities, and voted for a bill that would weaken fisheries management. In 2012, Higgins voted against an amendment to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. In 2011, Higgins voted to force President Obama’s decision in issuing a permit to approve Keystone XL and the following year voted for an amendment that sought to attach KXL approval to a transportation funding bill. In 2017, Higgins was one of only 15 House Democrats to vote against an amendment to replace some funding for ICE with the Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker program.

Other Contenders

The Budget Committee has had one non-white Chair in its history (Bill White), but has never had a female, Latino, or Asian chair. In case Democrats don’t want to choose between two moderate white men, there are several other options who currently serve as Democrats on the Budget Committee. Further down the dais, progressives Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) could run, though both would have to give up top subcommittee spots on the more powerful Ways and Means/Energy and Commerce Committees, respectively.  Other plausible candidates include Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.), Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), or Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

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Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I)

House T and I Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is retiring, after playing an important role throughout the negotiation of two major infrastructure packages in 2021, and marking up a $60 billion Build Back Better bill that included funding for decarbonization of surface transportation, support for lower-emitting aviation fuels, and investments in supply chain resilience that ultimately ended up in the Inflation Reduction Act’s port modernization provisions. With DeFazio retiring, an important vacancy has emerged in a Committee that oversees all aspects of the Department of Transportation, Amtrak, and Federal Aviation Administration. T&I also has jurisdiction over all Clean Water Act-related aspects of the EPA, as well as groundwater management and Coast Guard/EPA implementation of the Oil Pollution Act. An increasingly relevant aspect of T&I’s jurisdiction is its purview over FEMA’s disaster relief programs. In September, T&I held a hearing looking at lessons learned five years after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, just days before Hurricane Fiona again devastated the island

Eleanor Holmes-Norton

Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-D.C.) at a Transportation & Infrastructure hearing

Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-D.C.) has announced that she is running for the top position on T&I. Holmes-Norton has served as D.C.’s non-voting delegate to Congress since she was first elected in 1990, and has been a stalwart advocate for D.C. voting rights and statehood. Holmes-Norton, the current chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, has sought to fix the fact that D.C. is ineligible for certain federal flood mitigation funds, and has said she wants to continue DeFazio’s focus on climate, with any need for additional highway spending balanced against her view that alternative transit and an increased gas tax should also be supported. Since House rules permit her to vote in Committee but not on the House floor, Holmes-Norton does not have a substantial voting record to evaluate. However, she is a member of the CPC and co-sponsor of the GND resolution.

Rick Larsen

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.)

T&I has had one non-white Committee Chair (Norman Mineta) in its history, but has never had a female, Black, or Latino Chair. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) is vying for the top spot on T&I as well. Larsen is well-known on the Committee for playing a key role assisting DeFazio’s investigation into the Boeing 737 Max crashes (Boeing is a big employer in his district, and Larsen is chair of the Aviation Subcommittee). Crucially, Larsen enjoys support from Sara Nelson, the progressive labor leader who negotiated airline industry rescue packages throughout the pandemic. Larsen is a New Democrat and GND opponent who was one of only 84 Members to vote in 2019 to block protections for the endangered North American right whale, and has voted numerous times to weaken environmental review for polluting projects.

In our next post, we will look at the Science Committee, as well as about a dozen subcommittee vacancies.

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