PHMSA Administrator Confirmed As Nominations Backlog Grows

October 6, 2017

The Senate yesterday evening confirmed Howard Elliott to be Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration by unanimous consent. The confirmation by the full body followed a vote in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee earlier in the day recommending approval.

However, the backlog of transportation-related nominations still got bigger this week (see table here), as the White House sent three new nominees to the Hill.

Economist Diana Furchgott-Roth has been nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Research and Technology. Currently a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and head of their Economics21 project, Furchgott-Roth served on the staff of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan and on the Domestic Policy Council under George H.W. Bush. After sitting out the Clinton years at the American Enterprise Institute, she went back to the CEA as chief of staff under George W. Bush in 2001-2003 and then went to be chief economist of the Labor Department in 2003-2005 under Secretary Elaine Chao, who of course is now Transportation Secretary. Furchgott-Roth also served on the Trump transition team for the Labor Department. She received her BA in Economics from Swarthmore College and her M.Phil. in Economics from Oxford University.

(Ed. Note: There is a family connection to transportation economics specifically – Diana Furchgott-Roth is the daughter of transportation economist Gabriel Roth, who wrote an article for the Eno Foundation’s Traffic Quarterly called “Traffic Congestion as a Source of Revenue” all the way back in April 1970 and who has been a fixture at DC-area transportation seminars ever since.)

Rickey Dale “R.D.” James has been selected to run the civil works (a.k.a. water resources) program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works). James has a dual background that is particularly apt for the job. He has been a civil engineer who worked on water resources projects for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and later served 27 years (three nine-year terms) on the Corps’ Mississippi River Commission. But he also has experience on the shipping side of things, managing cotton gins and grain elevators in his home of New Madrid, Missouri. He was president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association and he served on the board of directors and executive committee of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association and the Cotton Producers of Missouri.

Lynn Westmoreland, former Republican Congressman from Georgia, has been nominated to be a member of the Amtrak Board of Directors. Westmoreland served in the House for 12 years (2005-2017) and for the first six of those years, he was on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its railroad subcommittee. Westmoreland was on T&I when the 2008 Amtrak authorization was legislation debated and enacted, and during the floor debate he voted for an amendment by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) to cut off operating subsidies for Amtrak’s most subsidized line, the Sunset Limited.

(Ed. Note: The same May 22, 2008 full committee markup at which T&I approved the Amtrak bill (H.R. 6003, 110th Congress) was also the markup where the panel approved the bill that wound up letting Donald Trump convert the Old Post Office in downtown D.C. into a hotel (H.R. 5001, 110th Congress). Small world.)

Nomination backlog. The speed with which Congress confirmed Elliott to PHMSA (24 days from the Senate receipt of the formal nomination paperwork to the confirmation vote, with a committee hearing and markup in between) serves to draw attention to the transportation nominees who have been pending the longest. The following four nominees have all been approved by committee (or, in one instance, allowed to bypass committee consideration per S. Res. 116 without objection) but have been held up on the way to the Senate floor:

  • Derek Kan – Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy – sitting on the calendar since June 29.
  • Steven Bradbury – General Counsel, Department of Transportation – sitting on the calendar since August 2.
  • Ronald Batory – Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration – sitting on the calendar since August 2.
  • Adam Sullivan – Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Governmental Affairs – sitting on the calendar since June 21.

In the case of Bradbury, a formal “hold” has been placed on the nomination by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) (see the “Notice of Intent to Object” section in the Senate Executive Calendar). This relates to actions taken by Bradbury while at the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel relating to “enhanced interrogation” techniques, not anything to do with transportation. This means that the Senate will almost certainly have to go through the formal cloture process to get Bradbury confirmed. Although cloture for non-Supreme Court nominees now only requires a simple majority, not 60 votes (thanks, Leader Reid!), it requires the better part of two full calendar days per nominee, so Leader McConnell has to be judicious in how many nominees he chooses to move this way (there aren’t that many more session days ’til Christmas).

The other three nominees are apparently being held hostage by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) as leverage over Administration support for the $30 billionGateway Program” of mass transit and intercity passenger rail projects in New York and New Jersey. The Senators basically confirmed to the Wall Street Journal on August 5 that they had kept Kan, Batory and Sullivan out of the massive package of nominees that the Senate cleared before embarking on the August recess. And the nominees haven’t moved since, which means that an informal “hold” has been placed on the nominations, presumably from the NY/NJ delegations.

The biggest part of the Gateway Program is a new Amtrak/transit tunnel under the Hudson River, anticipated to cost $11.1 billion (together with another $1.8 billion to rehab the existing tunnel once the new tunnel is complete). Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) made reference to the nominees during the Environment and Public Works Committee’s hearing on Federal Highway Administration nominee Paul Trombino this week (see the 50 minute and 30 second mark of the video, were Ernst refers to nominees being held up over funding for “a certain project in the Northeast Untied States.”)

(Ed. Note: The total cost of the tunnel project is estimated at $12.9 billion. Assuming a federal share of 50 percent of the cost (which is what Schumer and the other Senators want), this works out to a ransom demand of almost $2.2 billion per nominee for Kan, Batory and Sullivan.)

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