By Madeline Urbish
On May 6th, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee approved the Federal Permitting Improvement Act of 2015 (S.280). The bipartisan legislation aims to cut delays in permitting by coordinating the reviews of multiple agencies, as well as shorten the amount of time opponents have to challenge a permit decision from six years to 180 days. The bill was introduced by Senator Robert Portman (R-OH), who worked closely with Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in reaching language that would garner bipartisan support. The bill itself has seven sponsors, three Democrats, three Republicans, and one Independent. This legislation now moves to the Senate and will await a scheduled vote.
The Federal Permitting Improvement Act will establish a Federal Permitting Improvement Council (Council) to oversee and coordinate the multiple federal agencies involved in the permitting process for a given project. The Council will be comprised of representatives from federal departments and agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, the Interior, Energy, Transportation, and Defense, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Council on Environmental Quality. The Council is going to be overseen by a presidentially appointed Executive Director.
The Council and its director will be responsible for establishing an inventory of projects, developing nonbinding schedules for permitting, and maintaining an online database to track federal authorizations. The Council will also identify a lead agency for each project, which would be responsible for establishing a plan for coordinating the participating federal and state agencies, creating a timeline for authorizations, and developing a process for interagency consultation.
While these measure are laudable, the law does not bestow the Council or its director with the authority to actually enforce these plans or timelines. This makes the law a noble statutory suggestion. A central, coordinated decision making authority to oversee infrastructure project authorizations is key to creating a more efficient system to meet our country’s infrastructure needs.
This point was highlighted during events hosted through Infrastructure Week in Washington, DC. Specifically, the Federal Permitting Improvement Act was mentioned during a panel at the “Rethinking Infrastructure Approvals” forum by Philip Howard of Common Good and author of The Rule of Nobody. Howard referred to Senator Portman’s bill as the kind of movement needed in the world of infrastructure, but noted the downfall in the council’s inability to exercise any authority in improving the authorization process.
Additionally, during the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s markup of the bill, Senator Portman added an amendment that removed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from the role of director for the Federal Permit Improvement Council. According to Senator Portman, OMB did not want the job. This is an unfortunate change to the law, since OMB could have provided the Council with authority via its budget power.
The bill now makes its way to the full Senate, although it is not clear when it will be scheduled for a vote. There appears to be strong support from Senate Republicans who control the chamber, and potentially has Democratic support. All but one Democratic member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee voted in support of the bill (Senator Booker [D-NJ] voted against). The bill has also garnered support from a wide array of organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Resources Defense Council, and North America’s Building Trades Unions.
Whether or not the bill moves through the Senate or garners enough support to make it through the House is unknown. The widespread support across interest groups is a good indication that the Federal Permit Improvement Act strikes the right balance of expediting authorizations without sacrificing social and environmental protections. However, it is hard to predict how effective the law would be without more authority to enforce its provisions.
For more information contact Madeline Urbish at firstname.lastname@example.org.