Anthony Foxx avoided the controversy of other Capitol Hill hearings Wednesday, receiving a mostly warm reception from senators who considered his nomination to become transportation secretary.
Foxx probably will get easy confirmation by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, followed by the full Senate, as most nominees to head the Department of Transportation have before him.
But the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., would come to an agency that faces huge budget challenges, including the mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration, as well as a diminishing fund to construct and maintain the country’s highways and transit systems.
Foxx said he’d learned in four years as mayor to “work within what’s there,” adding that he couldn’t guarantee that all choices would be painless.
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Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the committee, told Foxx he can’t do his job effectively without revenue and to push Congress to give him what he needs.
“You have a huge job in front of you,” Rockefeller said. “The challenges are many and the solutions are hard.”
Senators at the hearing all voiced concern about decreasing amounts of money for fixing the nation’s roads and bridges and upgrading its air-traffic control system. The federal gasoline tax, long a major source of transportation funding, has lost more than a third of its purchasing power since Congress last raised it 20 years ago.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Congress couldn’t continue to borrow from general taxpayer funds to pay for highways. Lawmakers have bailed out the shrinking Highway Trust Fund with more than $50 billion in the past five years.
“Where is this secure, certain, stable source of revenue going to come from?” asked Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Foxx said he’d look to state and local governments for ideas because, in the absence of new policy from Washington, they were going in their own directions. Some are raising their own gasoline and sales taxes, increasing vehicle license fees and collecting more tolls.
“We should listen to them,” he said. “They have good ideas.”
Foxx said infrastructure banks and public-private partnerships could unleash “billions of dollars sitting on the sidelines,” but that those alone wouldn’t meet the country’s needs.
Congress passed a two-year transportation bill last summer, but Foxx said the country needed a long-term solution.
Republicans say federal agencies such as the Department of Transportation should pare their own budgets before cutting functions essential to public safety and mobility. GOP lawmakers criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for furloughing air-traffic controllers to comply with the spending cuts Congress enacted into law two years ago as a penalty if it failed to trim the federal budget.
Overall, the hearing proceeded at a relaxed pace and Foxx faced little of the intense grilling that other nominees for President Barack Obama’s second-term Cabinet have experienced.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., drew laughter when she referred to a six-hour hearing in the House of Representatives, still in progress, over the activities of the Internal Revenue Service.
“This is probably one of the most pleasant hearings on the hill today,” she said.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., called Wednesday’s hearing “the most amazing confirmation process I’ve seen so far” since coming to the Senate in January.
Another newcomer, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who’d aggressively questioned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing, was gentle with Foxx, whom he’d met earlier.
“I did enjoy our visit,” Foxx told Cruz.
Following Senate custom, Foxx was introduced to the committee by North Carolina’s senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr. Burr described Foxx as a “homegrown talent” who’d worked in all three branches of the federal government before he was elected Charlotte’s mayor.
Hagan called Foxx “a true champion” of infrastructure improvement in Charlotte, including transit, highways and aviation.
“It’s going to be sad to see him leave,” she said.