There may be people in Washington these days with fuller plates than Janet F. Kavinoky, but they might be hard to find.
As the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's transportation infrastructure programs as well as the group's Americans for Transportation Mobility campaign and Let's Rebuild America coalition, the 37-year-old Stanford Business School graduate is at the pivot point of the Chamber's efforts to promote economic growth and job creation. In her role as the Chamber's top infrastructure lobbyist, Kavinoky is responsible for ensuring the collective voices of its 3 million members are heard during congressional negotiations to reauthorize the nation's transportation programs. She is spearheading the Chamber's ambitious effort to measure the performance of the nation's four infrastructure pillars: transportation, energy, broadband, and water. And she is doing it all under the watchful eye of Chamber CEO Tom Donohue, whose keen interest in and understanding of infrastructure issues goes back to his days running the American Trucking Associations.
Kavinoky spoke recently with DC Velocity Senior Editor Mark B. Solomon at the Chamber's Washington headquarters about her dual roles as policymaker and lobbyist, the importance of freight interests in driving the debate over infrastructure spending, and the challenges and opportunities of working with Donohue, one of the nation's most powerful trade association chiefs and one who doesn't suffer fools gladly.
Q: How did you find yourself at the Chamber, as well as in the transportation field?
A: I've been at the Chamber for four years, and I got an accidental start in transportation 15 years ago. I got a job at the Department of Transportation, and they stuck me in the policy office and said I was going to work on ISTEA [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act] reauthorization. And I wrote down "Iced Tea?" on a notepad.
I stayed at DOT for four years, and finished my stint as special assistant to [DOT] Secretary [Rodney] Slater. I then got my M.B.A. at Stanford. After a time at a consulting firm, I called Jack Basso, who was director of budget and programs at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and who was CFO at DOT when I was there. Jack made room for me at AASHTO. I stayed there for four years and then moved to the Chamber. Here, we like to say we handle everything that floats, flies, and rolls.
Q: Is there a value-add to your efforts that you work so closely with Tom Donohue, who is one of the most influential trade association executives in the country and has such a deep understanding of the work you do?
A: Tom's interest in transportation and infrastructure makes our work a core priority. But when you work for someone who knows so much about this, it is also a bit daunting. I can't B.S. and say "I know what I'm talking about." I have to know my stuff. It makes me work a lot better. Tom takes a very personal interest in this issue, so even though I report to many people here, I feel I am directly accountable to him.
Q: What is the Chamber's infrastructure agenda for 2010 and how do you plan to execute on it?
A: Our vision for infrastructure is that we have a physical platform to the economy that needs to work in the way business needs it to work and to accommodate the needs of what will be a growing economy. In 2010, our aims are to make sure that the environment for business to deliver is in place, and that the government is actually doing what it is supposed to be doing.
We want to bring a business perspective and a business voice to the discussion. Traditionally, infrastructure has been about the construction industry, or about the transportation services industry. We want to talk about infrastructure from a business perspective.
Q: Will the fact that this is an election year facilitate your efforts, or hinder them?
A: One would think that because we know infrastructure supports and creates jobs, because we know that infrastructure has needs that are visible and apparent, and because people like to see things being built, in an election year, it would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, there are members of Congress who want to politicize infrastructure. They call highway and bridge spending "wasteful." They characterize infrastructure investment as the same thing as more big government. Changing minds on Capitol Hill is a real uphill fight in an election year.
Q: About $27 billion of $787 billion in federal stimulus money went to roads and bridges. Were you disappointed that more money wasn't directed to infrastructure?
A: We were disappointed that such a small amount was devoted to infrastructure. The real challenge now is on transportation reauthorization legislation. If you talk to people in the construction industry, they will tell you that unless there is a long-term highway and transit reauthorization bill, their industry will not come back. They are not starting the big projects, nor are they buying the big equipment until they see a roadmap.
Q: Are you concerned, as some are, that Congress will fail to pass a long-term transportation reauthorization bill during President Obama's term and that transportation funding will survive on a long series of continuing resolutions?
A: I think there is a real danger that unless people outside the Beltway see the effects of not having reauthorization, and unless the users of the transportation network tell members of Congress that they are making a big mistake and that it's hurting their business, it will be very easy to have continuing resolutions.
Q: How would you rate the Obama White House on its knowledge of the issues and its management of transportation policy?
A: We've seen a White House that has come to grasp the power of infrastructure. What they haven't done yet is paint a comprehensive picture of what transportation policy should look like. For example, they haven't talked a great deal about the importance of the nation's freight infrastructure.
Freight doesn't vote. People say that over and over again, but it's more than just a saying. When I got here, I was told the most important thing I could do was bring businesspeople to the table and talk about transportation. That's because infrastructure is not facing businesses squarely in the face the way taxes and health care are.
Q: In previous reauthorization cycles, shippers haven't stepped up to the table and voiced their opinions about transportation. Are you seeing a stronger, more active shipper voice this time around?
A: I think we are seeing shippers becoming more engaged. But it tends to be on very specific, industry-related issues. We could always use more shipper involvement in simply talking about the role that good-performing infrastructure plays in getting their business done. It is vital to hear a retailer saying how important our freight network is in getting products to market, and how it helps generate jobs. We need more shippers talking about the role infrastructure plays in their everyday life.
Q: Does there need to be more focus on freight in this reauthorization cycle?
A: Definitely. Freight was left on the cutting room floor in the last reauthorization [in 2005]. As the bill was moving through conference, freight programs were cut to make room for member earmarks and fiddling with the "formula" here and there. There has not been a focused effort on freight, and to be honest, the freight community doesn't help itself because quite often they are at war with themselves. It's shippers against carriers. Or it's the trucks versus the rails. When you tell Congress that freight is important and they ask what we should do about it and you can't give them specifics because no one agrees, you put yourself in a bad situation.
Q: The Chamber has said its members will support an increase in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes to finance infrastructure improvements. Is that still the Chamber's position?
A: Our board has said it would support a reasonable increase in fuel taxes as long as the transportation reauthorization legislation meets national needs, lays the groundwork for a sustainable revenue source for the future, creates the opportunity for more public-private partnerships, limits congressional earmarks, and removes barriers to project delivery.
Q: What's reasonable in the Chamber's view?
A: I would guess something that's phased in, maybe 3 to 5 cents a year for five years and then [increases] indexed to inflation.
Q: Is it doable?
A: This is a problem of political will and of being honest with the voters. You have a wide array of stakeholders that say if you do good things with [reauthorization legislation], we will support a gas tax increase. And yet for some reason, this is the political football. It gets the same gut reaction as if Congress were to go out and raise middle class taxes by 25 percent.