WASHINGTON - Congress is delivering in a small way on promises members made earlier this year to provide states and cities with a cash infusion to help them weather the economic slowdown and boost infrastructure spending.
Because this is a tight budget year, Congress will come nowhere close to providing the $55 billion in anti-recession aid sought by city officials and some economists at the beginning of the year and championed by Senate Budget Committee Chairman James Sasser, D-Tenn., among others.
But the congressional appropriation committees nevertheless have scraped together the resources to funnel between $3 billion and $4 billion of extra funds into critical city and state programs in fiscal 1993, which starts Oct. 1.
In committee bills now winding through Congress, most of the federal government's major infrastructure programs - including highways, mass transit, wastewater treatment, and community development - are slated to receive substantial increases reaching as high as 30% over last year's levels.
"There's a good reason" for Congress's largesse," said Robert Lamb, president of Lamont Financial Services, a firm specializing in transportation and environmental finance. "It's the jobs and economy issue" in the elections, he said. Channeling money into state and local construction programs "is a good way to get the money out" into the economy right away, he said.
The book has not been closed on the congressional appropriations bills because most still must go through a House-Senate conference and some face presidential veto threats.
So far this summer, Congress has taken the following actions that have been consistently favorable for key infrastructure programs:
* The House in June overrode the objections of President Bush and Republicans and approved a sizable "peace dividend" for the highway and mass transit programs by diverting unused funds from the foreign military aid budget. The move would enable those programs to spend $2.5 billion more in 1993 than they did in 1992.
* The Senate, while eschewing the House's decision to take the money out of military accounts, last week approved only $55 million less in funding for the transportation programs than the House did. The Senate's bill authorizes a total of $18.5 billion of spending from the highway trust fund on highways and mass transit.
* A Senate appropriations subcommittee last week approved a $1 billion, or 30%, increase in funding for the $3.4 billion Community Development Block Grant program. The House voted to increase the program's funding by $600 million.
* Both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the full House have approved an increase in funding for the $2.4 billion wastewater treatment construction program, as recommended by President Bush. That program will receive $2.5 billion in 1993, although it was slated to be cut back to $1.2 billion under a phase-out schedule in the 1987 Clean Water Act.
* Outside of the appropriations process, the Senate in its defense authorization bill is bidding to pump up the Economic Development Administration by infusing it with up to $200 million of funds from the defense budget. The move is part of a $1.2 billion "economic adjustment" initiative for communities hard hit by defense cuts.
The White House, which had proposed eliminating the development administration and cutting the community grant program, had objected only weakly to the proposed funding increases.
In a statement on the defense bill, the Office of Management and Budget called the transfer of defense funds into economic development assistance."troublesome" and "inappropriate." But OMB did not proffer one of its characteristic threats to recommend a veto of the bill.
And though President Bush strenuously opposed the House's move to fund an increase for highways and mass transit out of the foreign aid budget, the White House ironically has not taken issue with the level of funding the House and Senate are providing for highways.
In fact, in a statement on the Senate's highway bill, the OMB noted that it is $704 million below the President's request of $19.2 billion. The budget office said the Senate's level of authorization is "insufficient to maintain the condition of the national highway system, one of the most important links in the nation's transportation system."