President Obama is either fed up with Congress or he’s testing his own administration’s mettle. Or both.
On Wednesday, Obama took a now-familiar path in adopting a program—this time a jobs and infrastructure effort—that can happen entirely within his domain. Obama directed several federal agencies to identify “high-impact, job-creating infrastructure projects” that can be expedited now, without congressional approval.
One week before he will make a major address to Congress on jobs, Obama is making sure they know he plans to move forward without them. The president has also directed the Education Department to come up with a "Plan B" updating the 2001 No Child Left Behind law in the absence of congressional action. The message to Congress is clear: Do your work or we'll do it for you.
Under Wednesday's order, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Transportation will each select up to three high-priority infrastructure projects that can be completed within the control and jurisdiction of the federal government. The effort is labeled as a “common-sense approach” to spurring job growth “in the near term.” In practical terms, that means speeding up the permitting and waiver processes for green-building or highway projects to get the government out of the way. One of businesses’ foremost complaints with government infrastructure projects is that the paperwork is too cumbersome and creates unnecessary delays, according to White House economic advisers.
What is left unsaid in the administration’s rollout of the infrastructure project is that this may be the extent of the president’s powers while Congress embroils itself in months-long talks on cutting the deficit and responding to the White House’s jobs plan. Obama also pleaded with Congress on Wednesday to pass clean extensions of the Federal Aviation Administration and the surface-transportation laws, both of which expire this month.
On surface transportation, which includes a federal 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, Obama isn’t likely to get much resistance from Republicans. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., issued a statement on Wednesday saying he would agree to one extension of the highway-and-railroad-funding scheme, which would make eight such extensions of the law. The length of that extension could go as long as a year, but Washington insiders are predicting a shorter stopgap—four to six months.
On the FAA, Mica wasn’t as reassuring. He said he would wait until he returned to Washington and consulted with GOP leaders before agreeing to another stopgap. That would be No. 22 for the FAA. House Republicans proved their willingness to drive a hard bargain on the aviation bill last month when the FAA was forced to partially shut down as House leaders refused to back a clean extension sought by the administration.
Mica made sure to point out that the delays in transportation reauthorizations aren’t solely the fault of Republicans. During Democrats’ control of Congress, “they neglected aviation legislation for more than four years and left major transportation legislation in the ditch for more than a year," he said.
Still, the administration can make a fair amount of progress on its own infrastructure goals without the help of Congress. Obama’s order on Wednesday was issued in similar spirit to other smooth-government activities designed to get stuff done. The Energy Department already is using a technology-related “dashboard” to allow businesses and consumers to track government projects, which will now be extended to other federal agencies. The Transportation Department has been developing its own “infrastructure bank” to help direct technical assistance and federal money to high-impact road and bridge projects. That idea will now be shared among other agencies.