She keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of the Beltway. And with that heartbeat being as erratic as ever, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association Vice President of Government Affairs Pam Whitted gave us a glimpse of the upcoming election
By Rick Markley
She keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of the Beltway. And with that heartbeat erratic as ever, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association Vice President of Government Affairs Pam Whitted gave us a glimpse of the upcoming election.
How do you predict the House and Senate will look on Jan. 3, 2011?
It is going to be a lot more Republican. In the House, the Republicans will gain anywhere from 45 to 70 seats. If it is a wave election, which it appears to be now, traditionally in the last several decades, the toss-up seats go the direction of the wave. That means you could possibly have a Republican takeover of the Senate. Right now, I predict that the House will be taken over by the Republicans and the Senate will be very close, but I think it will stay in Democratic hands. So you'll have a split government; as far as the American people are concerned, they like that. They prefer having a split government as opposed to having control in the hands of one party, whether it be Republican or Democrat.
Will the aggregate industry like a split government?
We're in an interesting dilemma. As far as transportation reauthorization goes, which is our priority issue, the Democrats have been more willing to invest in infrastructure and the Republicans have opposed that. Republicans, on the other hand, have opposed burdensome federal regulationsólegislation like what is now called the American Commitment to Clean Water Act, which would extend federal jurisdiction over wetlands. They've opposed mine-safety legislation that would be an added burden on the aggregate industry. They've opposed the Employee Free Choice Act and Paycheck Fairness Act. Here we are in a situation where Democrats have been better on our priority issue and Republicans have been better at preventing additional burdensome regulations. We're kind of in a sandwich here.
It is very partisan right now. I don't believe I've ever seen it as partisan as this. Hopefully as we get past the election, there will be a willingness among new members to work across party lines on some of these issues that they've been unable to budge on. The politics are such that no one wanted to be accused of being a big spender or big taxer, so they've shied away from doing anything on any spending or tax bills. I'm hoping some of that partisanship goes away.
Transportation has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. I'm hoping we'll have champions in both the House and Senate that will be able to bridge differences with the other party, and they can move forward on a bill.
Will this bipartisan spirit come before the presidential election?
If Congress is split between the two parties, that will promote more bipartisanship. As an industry, we have to look to build relationships with those members of Congress who are willing to build bridges and coalitions on separate issues, that can support reauthorization, that are willing to recognize the importance of these issues to the country and are willing to look for partners on the other side of the aisle to pass legislation.
What has to happen for you to be right about the make up of Congress?
We'll know very early what kind of evening it is. The key areas to look at are states like Indiana and Kentucky that close the polls early and Florida. If you see that Florida Republican Marco Rubio is ahead in the Senate race, if you see in Indiana that Republican Senate candidate Dan Coats is winning by a lot, if you see some of these incumbents being beaten early in the evening, then you can be pretty sure that that is an indication of what is going to happen across the country. It will be a pretty good night for Republicans. If you see that some of these races are very competitive, then it could be a long night for Republicans, and they may not make the kind of gains everyone is talking about.
Is it too early for pundits to be making predictions?
That's right. A lot of the candidates haven't even gone on television yet [with advertisements].
If you're right, what does that mean for transportation funding?
It is very unlikely that Congress is going to act on a bill before the end of the year. We do know that they have to act on the highway program to extend it. We're not going to know about the length of that extension or what it is going to look like until after the election. The makeup of the House and Senate will not have that much of an impact on transportation. There is still going to be a hesitancy among the rank and file to act on a transportation bill if they think it will point to a user-fee increase. If they look at this and see that there is a real possibility of passing a multi-year bill in the next six monthsóRep. John Mica (R-Fla.) has said if he becomes chairman he plans to get a bill passed in six monthsóthen they are more likely to do a six-month extension and try to move on a bill. It also helps that the president has put this issue on the front burner. We don't know what his proposal means, because they haven't given us any specifics. If, on the other hand, the economy still looks very sluggish, and there doesn't seem to be any momentum for getting the bill passed, there might be a determination to go for a longer extensionóone that would get us beyond the presidential election. When we get away from the presidential politics, have an economy that is stronger and growing, we can discuss the whole reauthorization in a much more sane and responsible fashion.
If you are wrong about one or both houses, what does that mean for transportation funding?
Either way there is going to be a real hesitancy to move because of the strength of the Tea Party candidates and the anger of the American people about the intrusion by the federal government in their lives. What they are saying to the candidates, and we hear this when we go to fund raisers, it is jobs and the economy; they really want people focused on that. That is going to be the focus no matter what party controls these chambers. I'm not sure it matters if the Republicans take over the House or the Democrats stay in control. It is going to be a lot closer as far as the majority goes in both houses. We, the transportation industry, are going to have to cultivate our championsóRepublican and Democrat in both chambers and work with them to move a bill.
How important is this election for the aggregate industry?
It is very critical for the industry from the perspective of the regulatory side and the mine-safety issue. If you have a Republican-controlled House, you are not as likely to move forward on mine-safety legislation that affects all mining sectors. They aren't going to be as quick to act on the clean-water bill. They are not going to be as quick to act on Employee Free Choice. Those are very important to our industry, so yes, it is important. It is more critical for our issues outside of transportation. It will have a greater impact and be better for the aggregate industry if the Republicans are in control of the House. That said, the concern will transfer to the regulatory agencies, the EPA that's trying to regulate greenhouse gases administratively, trying to lower the PM10 standardsóthey are talking about halving it or more, which is just horrible. Our focus will change from the legislative bodies to the regulatory agencies that might try, if they can't get legislation through Congress, will try to do this through the rule-making process. We have our work cut out for us either way.
Will voter turnout play a role in this election?
Yes. Definitely. The energized party is the conservative Republicans, and that's going to make a lot of difference. I don't think any of the incumbents are safe, even if the polls now say they are ahead by considerable margins, you can't tell. We are going to be in for some real surprises. There are some long-time incumbents who may wake up and have lost their seat on the 3rd of November. Harry Reid, the polls all show that race as the margin of error. [Republican Senate candidate] Christine O'Donnell could really surprise people in Delaware and beat the Democratic candidate Chris Coons. There are going to be surprises, just like what happened with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mike Castle [O'Donnell's primary challenger], and Bob Bennett [a three-term Republican senator from Utah who lost to two challengers at the state convention]; we're going to see more of those. Maybe Sen. Barbra Boxer (D-Calif.) will be beaten by Carly Fiorina; that means Sen. Max Baucus (D-Wyo.) would be in line to take over the Environment and Public Works Committee. He'd probably stay at finance, then it's Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has a bias toward transit. But, he has been a pretty strong supporter of transportation. Barbara Boxer has been distracted, and she'd never really been that involved in the transportation issue. Climate change has been more of her signature issue.
In what ways will the Tea Party groups impact the election?
We've already seen what the role is. They show up. They are energized and the organization is headless by design. There are different Tea Party organizations and they don't all have the same emphasis. They generally all believe in less federal government, less federal spending and no new taxes. But, there are other issues that come in in different locations. They've shown that they can get people out to vote in Delaware, Alaska, Utah, Kentucky, Florida, New York. They're energized around this anger that's out there, maybe it is not so much anger as fear among the American populace about if they lose their job, where will the next job be. Tea Partiers have tapped into that. They've helped in primaries to nominate candidates that are not viewed as part of Washington and the establishment.
Will the candidates move toward the center for the general election, and if so, will this hurt Tea Party candidates?
The question is, are they more interested in the Republicans, who they seem to be closest to in ideology, having a majority or in making a statement? I don't have the answer to that. We'll just have to wait until Nov. 2. My feeling is that there will be some movement to the center. Some people are saying they are Tea Party candidates and they aren't; they are fudging on it. Others are denying that they are part of the party. So, it is all a little mixed up. Some third parties make a splash and go away; look at Ross Perot. I sense that this is around for a while.