Democratic candidate

Republican candidate

Key legislation

During a United States presidential campaign dominated by the discussion of terrorism, immigration, and economic inequality, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about the built environment. Still, the candidates have offered some clarity about where they stand on some issues of vital importance to architects: energy, climate, taxes, and student debt. 

As the two parties settle on their respective nominees and start drafting their platforms, they’ll begin transition planning well ahead of the election. That will give outside groups a chance to educate and inform advisers about top priorities, says Andrew Goldberg, Assoc. AIA, managing director for government relations and outreach at the AIA.“We’re not a single issue kind of organization,” Goldberg says. “There are a lot of different policies at the federal level that impact the practice of architecture.”

What follows is a summary of the major policy areas the AIA will focus on in 2016, as well as early hints of where the various presidential candidates stand on those issues.

Energy and Climate

Top Republicans are, by and large, skeptical about the impact of human activity on climate, if not downright hostile to the idea. Even those candidates who say they believe climate change is real, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have expressed doubts about the degree to which humanity is responsible.

Following the recent congressional decision to allow exports of U.S. crude, just about any Republican administration would allow more drilling for oil, jump-start the Keystone XL pipeline, and eliminate President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to limit carbon emissions from power plants. For instance, just before entering the presidential race, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz introduced a bill called the American Energy Renaissance Act that, in addition to promoting production and exports of oil and natural gas, would prohibit the federal government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions in any way. His bill has seen no action, but at a Senate hearing in December Cruz blasted environmentalists as “alarmists,” claiming that there is no data demonstrating significant climate change over the past two decades.

Indeed, the AIA is preparing for a potentially difficult fight to protect the 2030 targets, made law in 2007 as Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act, which require all new federal buildings and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Legislation to repeal the targets has been repeatedly introduced over the past five years, most recently winning House approval in December as part of a larger energy package. The Senate will debate related legislation this year, but President Obama has threatened to veto any energy bill that would repeal Section 433. “Buildings are really the low-hanging fruit in sustainability,” Goldberg says. “We don’t want to go backwards on federal buildings.”

The three Democratic candidates—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—uniformly support proposals that would promote both development of renewable energy sources and improved building efficiency. In 2013, Sanders introduced the Residential Energy Savings Act to help homeowners who want to invest in energy efficiency retrofits. The bill didn’t pass, but Sanders and the other Democrats continue to promote similar ideas. Clinton has pledged to make clean energy and efficiency a federal priority, while also providing grants to states, cities, and rural communities that retrofit and invest in alternative energy sources. O’Malley wants to create a federal clean energy jobs corps to provide manpower to help communities create new green spaces and retrofit buildings. In November, a bipartisan commission on climate that O’Malley had established reported that Maryland was on track to meet a goal set early in his administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

The AIA is also promoting the idea that, following disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency should give added assistance to states that have adopted stronger building codes. The Safe Building Code Incentive Act, sponsored by Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), would allow states to receive additional funding following disasters if they have modernized their building codes. States with codes that meet federal muster would receive 4 percent more in disaster relief funds, in addition to other technical and financial assistance that would allow them to implement mitigation efforts before disasters strike. New Jersey, meanwhile, has updated its building code and planning maps following Superstorm Sandy, but Gov. Christie has still been criticized for not embracing broader standards to ensure the safety of older buildings and guard against continued dangers from flooding.

Taxes and Business Development

For the most part, Republicans are inclined to simplify the tax code. Cruz, for example, would eliminate the current system of corporate income taxes, replacing them with a Business Flat Tax set at 16 percent. Donald Trump promises to limit taxes on businesses of all sizes—from struggling freelancers to the Fortune 500—to not more than 15 percent. Similarly, Ben Carson wants to limit taxes on income to 14.9 percent, while eliminating all tax credits. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says he will cut taxes on small businesses to 25 percent, while allowing companies to immediately write off their new investment costs.

Most architecture firms are set up as “pass-throughs,” meaning that instead of paying taxes as a corporate entity, partners pay individual income taxes. For those taxpayers, the Republican candidates would eliminate most deductions and credits, and they favor lower, flatter rates (though top earners would largely enjoy disproportionate gains). “The tax code’s deductions, credits, and exclusions mean similarly situated taxpayers may have vastly different tax liabilities,” Bush’s campaign contended when the candidate announced his tax plan back in September. 

Democrats, by contrast, are largely supportive of the aggressive use of credits. Clinton, who pledges not to raise taxes on middle-income workers, says she will provide “targeted” tax relief for small businesses, helping them rather than “corporations that can afford lawyers and lobbyists.” She has proposed a 15 percent tax credit for businesses that share profits with workers, along with other credits for hiring entry-level employees.

In recent years, the AIA has been working to ensure that official Small Business Administration (SBA) rulings don’t handicap architects. For instance, several years ago, the SBA proposed a new definition that would have classified 98 percent of architecture firms as small businesses, meaning that smaller shops would have been forced to compete with much larger firms for federal projects. The newly passed Stronger Voice for Small Business Act, which was rolled into last year’s defense bill, enables firms to challenge new size definitions through an internal SBA process instead of resorting to legal action.

The AIA, which is nervous about whether tax credits for historic preservation and low-income housing will survive a broader tax overhaul debate, is supporting a bipartisan bill in the House that would extend funding for the credits for 10 years. Of the Republican candidates, one of the only supporters appears to be Kasich, who as governor of Ohio backed historic building credits, opposing an effort in the state Senate last year to freeze them.

In November, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford (R), an opponent of preservation tax credits, playfully included Trump on his long list of “wasteful” government spending. Lankford pointed out that the developer had received a $40 million tax credit toward converting the Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C., into a hotel.

 Building and Design

Recently, there’s been talk on Capitol Hill about weakening requirements for the State Department’s design excellence guidelines (which the AIA helped shape). Leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, concerned about cost overruns on projects such as the embassies in London, Mexico City, and Kabul, Afghanistan, have questioned whether the program emphasizes style over safety. Diplomatic security has been a paramount concern since the 2012 attack on the mission in Benghazi, Libya. (An effort by Cruz to launch a Senate investigation into the incident was blocked by Democrats in 2014.) Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), who chairs the Government Reform subcommittee on national security and is a critic of the design excellence program, has conceded that congressional Republicans cut funding for embassy security ahead of the Benghazi attack.

Department officials have defended the design excellence program, arguing that buildings tailored to their environments will fare better than cookie-cutter fortresses. While security is Job One, other factors such as energy efficiency and representing the country in a positive way remain crucial. “Design is not about pretty,” Goldberg says. “It’s about integrating all these things—not just aesthetics but how things work.”

Meanwhile, in December, the passage of a long-overdue $305 billion transportation bill, which will provide funding for roads, bridges, and transit over the next five years, threatens to make infrastructure a forgotten topic during the campaign, even though it will remain an important issue for the next president. Cruz, Rubio, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul all voted against the package in the Senate.

On the other hand, Trump, during one of the GOP debates, said that the nation had spent $4 trillion “trying to topple” dictators—money that he believes could have more profitably been used at home. If we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges … our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off,” Trump said. Following the derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia in May, which killed eight and injured more than 200, Trump tweeted that he was the candidate best equipped to rebuild American infrastructure: “I know how to build, pols only know how to talk.”

On the other side of the aisle, Sanders introduced a trillion-dollar infrastructure package in the Senate last year—more than three times the size of the law passed by Congress. Sanders wants to create an infrastructure bank and favors spending more than $700 billion repairing deficient roads, bridges, and transit systems. Both Clinton and O’Malley favor revival of the Build America Bonds program, which was created as part of the 2009 stimulus package, and which offered tax breaks and other incentives to investors in capital projects. In addition, Clinton has said that she would provide $25 billion over five years to fund a national infrastructure bank to leverage funds for priority projects around the country. Both Build America Bonds and an infrastructure bank are AIA priorities.

Student Debt

How to train a new generation of architects and keep them in the field? The AIA supports a bill known as the National Design Services Act, which would offer debt relief to students in exchange for community service. Loan forgiveness programs are already available for medical students, for example, but Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D), who is working on the bill with the AIA and the AIAS, says that graduating architectural students have no such ability to earn debt relief through professional experience.

With total student debt climbing close to the trillion-dollar mark, candidates in both parties have put forward proposals in response. Rubio, who himself carried student debt into his Senate career, emphasizes the need to promote vocational training. In a widely noted moment during a November debate, he said, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Rubio has sponsored legislation that would allow forgiveness of loans greater than $57,500 after 20 years, with bigger loans forgiven after 30 years. He favors an approach that allows graduates to pay off debt by allocating a percentage of their income, with a $10,000 annual exemption. Rubio also would create a system to allow individuals or companies to finance higher education bills, in exchange for a percentage of a student’s income for a set period of time following graduation, whether or not the student works for the company that’s financed the loans. “Allowing private entities to invest directly in an individual student is an alternative to student loans that will help make higher education more accessible,” Rubio said last year.

Christie has also talked about a model that would allow graduates to devote a percentage of their income over a period of time to pay back private debt financiers. He also likes the idea of tax credits to pay down debt in exchange for community service. Carson has floated the idea of holding institutions of higher education themselves responsible for interest payments on student debt.

Cruz has also discussed his personal debt burden, but he has offered limited support to student aid programs. In 2013, he proposed cutting Pell grants, while increasing monthly payments for some loans by increasing the cap on income-based repayment plans. Conversely, Trump is against the idea of the government making any sort of profit from student lending. He told The Hill newspaper in July: “I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.” Aside from promising to create more jobs for graduates, however, Trump hasn’t specified what his plan would be.

All three of the Democratic candidates would increase federal support for higher education, making attendance at public institutions either a debt-free proposition or, in Sanders’ case, tuition-free. Each of them wants current borrowers to be able to refinance their student debt at lower interest rates. “We must substantially lower, as my legislation does, interest rates on student debt,” Sanders said in November.

And While They’re at It

Other AIA priorities include creating federal and state “Good Samaritan” laws that would shield architects from liability when they work in disaster zones. Some of the home states of the presidential contenders offer such protections, including Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas, but New York, Ohio, and Vermont do not.

Moreover, with the federal government acting as the largest client for architects in the country, the AIA would like to see changes to procurement rules. A recent change in military bids, which limits the number of firms that have to compete in the final stages of costly competitions, was passed by Congress last year, as part of the defense bill. The same principle could be extended to the civilian side of government.

 Making Your Voice Heard

The AIA will be holding a new advocacy event July 13–15 in Washington, D.C. The goal is to ensure that architects from around the country can make their voices heard by the presidential candidates as well as by members of Congress, whether or not they are running for re-election. The event will also offer training to help professionals connect with policymakers in their home states and cities—all the places where architecture is regulated, licensed, and affected by the broader policy landscape.