Longtime Iowa Congressman Tom Latham of Ames has been designated as the top Republican on a key budget group in congress. Latham is now the highest-ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and related agencies. Latham says he’ll be working on some of the priority issues for the new congress.

“Rebuilding our infrastructure — roads, bridges, all kinds of transportation issues — but also one of the most critical issues we have today is in the housing areas and the crisis that we have in that market,” Latham says. “…It’s an opportunity for us in the state of Iowa, I think, to set our priorities and make sure that we have someone in that position who can really be of assistance for the state.”

It also means Latham will be involved in reviewing and perhaps revising the economic stimulus package President-elect Obama has been crafting. “With the stimulus package and the emphasis that’s going to be on infrastructure we’re going to be a part of all that discussion whether it be down at the White House after the new president’s sworn in or with their representatives from the administration up on the hill up here,” Latham says. “It’s a major part of the whole stimulus package. We’ll see how it all works out, but it’s going to be an awful lot of responsibility.”

The subcommittee drafts the budget for the Department of Transportation, including the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak. The Subcommittee also is responsible for drawing up budgets for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Latham says he’s “concerned” by what he’s heard of Obama’s stimulus plan. “What President-elect Obama’s not addressing I think is the crisis in the housing market that we have today and we need certainty in the financial sector and part of that is the uncertainty of tax ramifications in the future,” Latham says. “There’s about $9 trillion sitting on the sidelines today, looking for a place to be invested, and without certainty as to what the tax ramifications are that money’s just going to stay on the sideline.”

The mayors of Cedar Rapids and Des Moines last week asked that some of the stimulus money be used to fix damaged public infrastructure in flood-ravaged cities in Iowa. Latham says rebuilding storm-damaged areas of the state is one of his own priorities, but he’ll be unable to use his new position to specify that certain projects — like a bridge somewhere in Iowa — get federal funding.  “President-elect Obama has said that there will be no ‘earmarks’ as far individual projects, such as flood recovery, in the stimulus package,” Latham says. “…We’ll see what happens.”

The subject of “earmarks” was a topic of debate during the presidential campaign, with Republican presidential candidate John McCain ridiculing a variety of projects which members of congress were able to “earmark” for their districts — like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and a project to research the D.N.A. of grisly bears.