WASHINGTON -- Rep. Beryl Anthony and three other members of Congress yesterday formally announced the formation of a caucus to educate other lawmakers about issues concerning infrastructure and public finance.
"I hope this caucus will help educate and advocate so that Congress can craft laws that will help the private and public sectors meet our insfrastructure needs," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a co-chairman of the caucus with Rep. Anthony, D-Ark., Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Don Sundquist, R-Fla.
Rep. Anthony said in a statement that the caucus will encourage Congress to work to give state and local governments the financing tools to confront their infrastructure problems. The caucus will conduct seminars and other activities, "to alert members to ways of addressing problems through changes in existing laws," he said.
Under congressional rules, caucuses are groups of lawmakers who share an interest in a particular issue. In the past 20 years the number of caucuses has exploded, from about a dozen to more than 100. Some do a large amount of research and wield influence involving the issues they are interested in, while others are relatively inactive.
The four lawmakers said their basic message is that the federal government needs to do more to help states and localities find the financing to shore up the nation's ailing infrastructure, including roads, highways, bridges, and sewers. Municipal professionals have long argued that the most appropriate tool is tax-exempt debt, but various bond curbs in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 have made it difficult to use municipal bonds for infrastructure projects.
Rep. Anthony, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, first mentioned the idea of organizing a public finance caucus in March. At the time, an aide to the congressman said that with state and local officials lobbying more intensely on municipal bond matters, "it's time to organize and energize the inside players."
But before focusing on financing tools, the caucus needs to identify specific infrastructure needs, Sen. Graham said.
Sen. Bond said it also would be important to educate members about the need to ease curbs on tax-exempt bonds. He said that when he was governor of Missouri in the mid-1970s, he had the impression the federal government thought of tax-exempt financing as just another drain on the Treasury.
With the number of caucuses at an all-time high, their reputation as repositories of information on various issues has been tarnished because so many do little substantive work.
Rep. Anthony said he is aware of those criticisms and that he and his co-chairmen plan to work hard to make their caucus credible. "We don't deceive ourselves," he said. "We know it's an uphill task. We know there is a proliferation of caucuses."
The caucus's first effort will be to enlist the support of a Democrat and a Republican governor to decipher state and local officials' problems with financing infrastructure projects, Rep. Anthony said.