At a time when the U.S. House of Representatives seemed paralyzed, unable or unwilling to pass substantive legislation, the water resources authorization bill sailed through the chamber last month in a rare, almost unanimous 417-to-3 vote. This is “the most policy- and reform-focused legislation of its kind in the last two decades,” said Con. Bill Shuster (Pennsylvania), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee.
He added: “This bill [H.R. 3080] contains no earmarks, cuts red tape for improvements that will strengthen our economic competitiveness, streamlines the infrastructure review process, and deauthorizes $12 billion of outdated projects in order to more than fully offset new authorized Corps activities.”
Six months ago, on May 15, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the water resources authorization measure (S. 601) by a comfortable 83-14 margin. The next step is for a House-Senate conference to iron out differences in the two bills, and both chambers have already named their conferees. The Senate picked eight of its members – five Democrats and three Republicans – while the House selected 28 conferees, 16 Republicans and 12 Democrats.
The House-Senate committee is wasting little time in reconciling the two bills. Committee staffers have already been meeting informally, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (California), who is chairing the conference, has already called for its first formal meeting last week. She is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
House conferees include all four members of the T&I Committee’s leadership – Chmn. Shuster and Con. Nick J. Rahall (West Virginia), the committee’s ranking member, and Con. Bob Gibbs (Ohio), chairman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, and Con. Tim Bishop (New York), the panel’s ranking member. They were credited with helping to forge the strong bipartisan support for the bill.
The House added reforms in expediting studies, selecting projects, developing better cost estimates, streamlining environmental requirements, instituting project-funding innovations, refining cost estimates, speeding up project delivery, avoiding future backlogs, etc., causing the panel to insert another “R” in the name of its authorization bill: WR(R)DA.
Before the House-Senate conference began its deliberations, Chmn. Shuster said “there’s a lot of common ground” in the two versions of the water resources authorization bills. But there are also some major differences. The Senate bill would automatically authorize projects meeting a set of specific criteria, but the House wants future projects to originate at the local level, face vetting by the Corps, and then be transmitted to Congress in an annual report if they meet basic criteria.
With certain restrictions, both the House and Senate would expand use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) beyond O&M for port channels. The Senate would set specific funding target levels, starting at $1 billion in FY 2014 and increasing to full HMTF receipts by 2020, while the House would set higher annual targets in the early years but cap spending at 80 percent of prior-year revenues after 2019.
However, both chambers declared they did not favor funding increases for maintenance dredging if other Corps programs would face offsetting reductions.
To deal with hefty cost overruns at Olmsted L&D, the House would limit future contributions from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to 25 percent of the remaining cost of the project. The Senate would federalize completion of the project, absolving the trust fund from future obligations and thus freeing up approximately $150 million annually to go to other, now-stalled lock-and-dam projects.