Washington Report: Congress's Road Ahead

by Patty Power, ACPA Washington Advocate

"New laws support construction that uses concrete."

The 118th Congress got off to a slow start while the House Republican leadership race sorted in early January, leaving Kevin McCarthy as the new Speaker of the House after 15 votes. The extended race for the leader highlighted various, sometimes conflicting, positions that Speaker McCarthy must navigate within his caucus. This will be a challenging session.

After an active 117th Session of Congress (2021-2022), the general consensus in Washington is that the 118th Congress (2023-2024) will not be as active. There are a couple of reasons supporting this conclusion. One is that an upcoming presidential election cycle usually chills bipartisan action, now required with very tight margins in both the House and the Senate. Political competition does not engender cooperation across “the aisle.” Likewise, the incumbents do not want to give the challengers any wins to promote on the campaign trail, and vice versa.

Despite the conventional wisdom, Congress will address major issues this year. The authorization for two major federal programs expire before the end of the current fiscal year. One is the Farm Bill, a mega-authorization bill for the Department of Agriculture’s farm, forest and nutrition programs, along with a growing list of conservation and environmental remediation programs. The other expiring authority is for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While the FAA is part of the Department of Transportation, its programs are not included in the broader-based transportation infrastructure legislation. Reauthorization of the airport construction programs is a top priority for the cement and concrete industry. The ACPA will support our fellow North Atlantic Concrete Alliance (NACA) members in their congressional asks related to this reauthorization.

The federal budget will draw significant congressional — and political — attention. The threat of another debt ceiling breach looms large. Over the past 22 years, Congress has raised or suspended the debt ceiling twenty times. Historically, political support for doing so tends to track along political party lines. When the Democrats are in the White House, congressional Democrats support raising or suspending the debt ceiling. Similarly, when the Republicans are in the White House, congressional Republicans support raising or suspending the debt ceiling. This fight will intensify through this summer, when the threat of the U.S. Treasury defaulting on its debt may be realized.

Always included in “must pass” annual legislation are the federal spending or appropriations bills. The debt ceiling debate is playing in congressional positioning in this year’s appropriations process. ACPA is watching how any pressure to reduce spending may influence implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). As the Department of Transportation stands up new infrastructure construction programs and delivers funding to all programs, the construction industries do not want to see the brakes pumped.

Beyond Congress, the administration has been very busy implementing laws enacted last Congress, including:

  • The IIJA, which authorized $1.2 trillion over five years;
  • The CHIPS and Science Act, which authorized $280 billion to support the domestic production of semiconductors and various federal technology and science programs; and
  • The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which authorized and appropriated $1.22 trillion to implement a clean energy economy.

All of these new laws will support construction that will use concrete. For example, the CHIPS and Science Act supports bringing manufacturing of semiconductor chips back to the U.S. The manufacturing plants to produce the semiconductor chips will be built all over the country. As discussed in other columns, the IIJA provides a steady stream of project funding, federal dollars supplemented by matching state and local funds, to build infrastructure to keep the country moving. The IRA’s incentives for investments in a clean economy will also result in more construction.

While the federal programs will create new opportunities for more concrete to be pumped, ACPA has been tracking regulatory issues related to implementation of these programs and their funding. The Build America, Buy America (BABA) requirements as applied to cement and concrete, despite having an exemption in the law, is an issue we are tracking with our NACA colleagues. Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), which are collective bargaining agreements between building trade unions and contractors, may be required for very large federally funded construction projects.

ACPA has joined with other construction associations to object to this requirement. Finally, state requirements to use Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are growing and the federal agencies are considering guidance on their use as well. EPDs provide an independently verified standardized life cycle analysis for products. ACPA will continue to track. If your company is dealing with any of these new requirements, please let us know.