Rep. Womack named chair of key U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 835 views 

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, visits Feb. 21 with ArcBest Chair, President and CEO Judy McReynolds after a tour of the company’s Innovation Lab in Fort Smith.

Departures in the U.S. House of Representatives have resulted in U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, being elevated to chair of the House Transportation and Housing & Urban Development (THUD) subcommittee of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Following the resignation and departure of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, other key Republicans to leave or announce a planned departure include Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.

Womack was named chair of the subcommittee after U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., moved from the position to chair of the full House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who did not seek re-election to Congress, stepped down as committee chair in March.

“With a subcommittee essential to the future of America’s transportation and infrastructure, you need a builder at its helm,” Rep. Cole said in a statement provided by Womack’s office. “Congressman Womack is just that. As a former mayor and senior appropriator, his direct service and strong fiscal understanding bring the breadth of understanding and experience needed to guide critical development investments.”

Prior to being named chair of the THUD subcommittee, Womack was chair of the Appropriations’ Financial Services and General Government subcommittee. He also is a member of the Appropriations’ Defense subcommittee.

Womack, now in his sixth, two-year term representing Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District, said it is an honor to lead a subcommittee “that writes the checks, if you will, for the transportation projects that are so vital to America, and certainly my district and our state.” He said being a former mayor in a “high-growth district” provides him the background to understand the real-world importance of transportation funding and adequate housing.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers

“I think being a former mayor for 12 years in a high-growth area and relying on federal partnerships meant transportation authorization bills and earmarks in the old days. If you think about it, that’s how we built the Perry Road interchange, exit 82, there in Rogers near the Bass Pro Shop. It was that infrastructure that expedited development in the Pinnacle Hills region,” Womack told Talk Business & Politics.

Womack acknowledged that his new job will not be easy, considering the ongoing dysfunction in the U.S. House and the need to address the national deficit. He said his job and that of the subcommittee to let others know that entitlement spending is the primary driver of deficits with discretionary spending from the DOT and HUD having “much less” to do with deficit spending.

A big issue he will face is rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the Baltimore harbor. The bridge collapsed on March 26 when hit by a large container cargo ship leaving the harbor. The Port of Baltimore is a key facility in U.S. exports and imports, with, for example, 28% of U.S. coal exports using the port. However, Womack said funding to support the Key bridge replacement may be part of a supplemental budget bill instead of being part of a future DOT appropriations package.

In an April 5 story published by Roll Call, the THUD chairmanship was labeled an “attractive perch.” The subcommittee is the first line in setting annual appropriations for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Other smaller federal agencies under the subcommittee’s purview include the National Transportation Safety Board, the Surface Transportation Board, the Federal Maritime Commission, and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation.

“The subcommittee controls one of the largest annual allocations of discretionary funds, doling out over $100 billion in this fiscal year’s final version enacted last month. The law included $6 billion in home-state earmarks for infrastructure and community development projects, by far the largest source of earmarks of any of the 12 spending bills,” noted the Roll Call article.

DOT funding is closely watched and heavily lobbied because of its broad reach on the nation’s infrastructure. The 2024 DOT budget was around $204 billion, or about 1.7% of the total federal budget.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “DOT operates the nation’s air traffic control system; regulates aviation, commercial trucking, and motor vehicle safety; and provides grants to support aviation, highway, transit, and passenger rail infrastructure as well as highway, maritime, and pipeline safety.”

And HUD is no small affair. It is essentially the nation’s housing agency, and its programs are estimated to provide services and support for more than 4.6 million U.S. households. The 2024 HUD budget was around $74 billion, with President Joe Biden requesting an additional $104 billion for “mandatory affordable housing investments.”

David Olive, chief of staff for Asa Hutchinson when he was first elected in 1996 as the U.S. House for Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District, and founder of Washington, D.C.-based Catalyst Partners, said Womack “is imminently well qualified” for the job because he brings to the job his experience as Rogers’ mayor and several years of leadership on other House Appropriations subcommittees.

“Anyone who is a ‘cardinal,’ i.e., a top appropriator in Congress, is in a very important position. And when you have been the former mayor of any medium to small size town, your existence, your success is determined on how you do with what is ‘roads and commodes,” Olive said. “His background certainly lends itself to a deeper on-the-ground understanding of transportation infrastructure and housing and all the other stuff that the committee will handle.”

Olive said HUD not only has a “huge role” in addressing the national housing shortage, but the agency also plays a key part in emergency management response.

Olive said Arkansas and 3rd District residents shouldn’t expect money to begin flowing into the state because of Womack’s new role because House leadership is trying to balance spending and addressing huge deficits.

“In a budget with trillion-dollar deficits, you need a cardinal with strong leadership when there is limited money because of deficit pressures. … You need someone who understands how to address longer-term problems rather than just throwing money at potholes,” Olive said.

Womack defeated challenger Arkansas Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, in the March Republican primary race and now faces Democrat Caitlin Draper and Libertarian Bobby Wilson in the November general election.