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Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2008

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

DEPARTMENTS OF TRANSPORTATION, HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT, AND RELATED AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008

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Mr. DeMINT. Mr. President, I thank my colleagues for the opportunity to speak on my amendment. I do have an amendment to the Transportation bill that I would like to talk about for a few minutes this morning.

I have listened to a lot of the debate this week. Obviously, transportation is a key issue for this country, and it has become clear that because of the tragedy in Minnesota, many of us are concerned about bridges and those that are deficient. We have talked a lot about how to fund those, and I am afraid, as Congress often does, we ignore a serious problem until it is too late, and then we decide we want to throw a lot of money at it and we come riding in on white horses to fix the problem.

I think we do need to look at the problem and what we can do at the Federal level, and I have an amendment that I think will make the dollars we spend go a lot further that I would like to present to Members this morning. But, first, I think we need to review a little of the situation we are in.

I think we have all heard in the debate that America has many bridges we have deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. My amendment addresses these particular bridges. There are over 150,000 bridges in the country today--or over 20 percent of our total bridges--that fall under the classification of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.

Every day in this country, right now, people are going to work and filling up their gas tanks. Over 18 cents of every gallon they put in their tanks is a Federal tax that comes to us. That tax was actually started many years ago when we wanted to build the Interstate Highway System in this country. It started at a much lower level. I think most of us know the Interstate Highway System is basically complete. Yet we have continued to take that tax and raise it over the years. So what we are doing is taking money from the States and bringing it to Washington. The problem is that very little of that actually gets back for the maintenance of bridges in our States.

To start off with, a lot of States, the majority of States in this country, don't get back what they send. We call them donor States. South Carolina is one of the donor States. We will send our tax to Washington and, for years, we have gotten back less than 90 cents on a dollar. This clearly hurts our State. But what does come back comes back with a lot of red tape and regulations that prevent the dollars from going as far as they could.

What has happened in South Carolina and many other States is that in order to get those Federal dollars back, we have had to match them with our State dollars. For years, we have taken money out of our maintenance funds for roads and bridges and used it to match the Federal dollars. But the Federal dollars have to be used in particular ways that are not necessarily for the maintenance of roads and bridges. Even more important are all of the earmarks we put in the Transportation bill, earmarks for bridges to nowhere or a Big Dig in Boston, and these earmarks usually have to be matched at a higher level to get those dollars, and they have to then be used in the way the earmark prescribes.

We have looked through a lot of past bills and found very few earmarks that are to maintain and improve bridges. They are for new projects and things on which we can do press releases. But the bottom line is this: Less than 40 cents on a dollar that we send to Washington actually ends up helping to maintain roads and bridges. That is a problem.

Now, there are a lot of things we can do, and I have identified one I would like us to focus on today. It is the old law called the Davis-Bacon provision. It actually started during the Depression, when many companies were hungry to get business, and so they sharpened their pencils and gave lower bids to cities, and the larger companies didn't like that. So they created the Davis-Bacon law, which actually allows the Federal Government to set the wages of companies when they are doing Federal work.

What happens in most parts of the country, such as South Carolina, when a small company--perhaps a minority-owned company--may be trying to compete with a large company, they will come in with a lower bid, but then they have to allow the Federal Government to set the wages. We call it prevailing wages, but it may not be the prevailing wage in South Carolina. The American Association of Builders and Contractors has estimated that the Davis-Bacon provision raises the cost of construction from 5 percent to 38 percent. Just think of that. Think of that money and how it could be multiplied if that provision was not part of the equation for maintaining and getting these obsolete and structurally deficient bridges in better order.

That is what this amendment is about. It is not an unprecedented idea. President Bush realized during Katrina that we had to do a lot of work and get a lot of firms in action--small firms. All these firms have already worked out the salaries with their employees. Some may be revenue sharing and not related to salary. But as long as Davis-Bacon is in order, those firms have to wait for the Federal Government to tell them what to pay their employees so they can then bid a job. It slows the whole process. So during Katrina, the President waived it, and during Hurricane Andrew, after that we waived the Davis-Bacon provision so that the money could go further and the rebuilding could take place quicker.

My amendment is very simple in that it focuses particularly on bridges that have already been designated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. For 1 year only, we waive this Davis-Bacon provision so that the States and municipalities around this country can take the Federal money that is provided and make it go further to fix these bridges--to build new ones in some cases--and to allow them to move quicker and not wait for some Federal bureaucrat to tell them what to pay their employees in order to get a job from the city.

Anyone in business, particularly in the construction-related business, knows that it sometimes is feast or famine; you either have too much work or you don't have any. Many times, a municipal government or State government can get a lot lower bid and get work done much quicker if they are allowed to take those low bids. Unfortunately, the way we have it set up with Davis-Bacon, we force such a bureaucracy, we force these particular salaries on these companies that may have different arrangements with their employees, and it slows the whole process. Just think--we are talking about a 38-percent increase in cost, in some cases, just because of Davis-Bacon.

So I would encourage my colleagues to consider this amendment. We are not talking about getting rid of Davis-Bacon forever, although I think that is something we should perhaps consider. But this is just a 1-year waiving of Davis-Bacon specifically for the repair and maintenance of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges. If we do this, I think the public will get a lot more for their tax dollars, we will get this work done a lot quicker, and it makes a whole lot more sense than raising the Federal gas tax. That is kind of the way Congress does things--we have a problem, so let's just raise taxes and spend more money. In this case, we have about $4 for every $10 we spend that doesn't go to what we say it does. If we can do a few things, like waive Davis-Bacon, the money we take from the public can go a whole lot further.

I encourage Members to vote for this amendment this morning. I hope the majority will not table it, because we have seen in Katrina and other tragedies that our money goes a lot further, the work gets done faster, and our goals as a Congress are met a lot sooner.

Mr. President, I thank the chairwoman for the time, and I yield the floor.

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Mr. DeMINT. I appreciate the debate. I think it is important to have. Davis-Bacon does not make sites safer. It does not have anything to do with skilled workers. What it does is forces particularly small companies to revamp how they bid projects, to change how they pay their people. The cost of that administration as well as waiting for the Federal Government--you can't just go to the Internet. The Federal Government is going to have to approve what the prevailing wage is. It has been deemed not functional, what is taking place. What we are talking about is not a suspension of Davis-Bacon forever, but a recognition in the next years we want a lot more dollars to be applied to bridge maintenance, and by waiving Davis-Bacon for 1 year our dollars will go further and the work will be done quicker.

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