THE House appears to have reached a bipartisan agreement for its Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA), although the details are scant.
House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Schuster (R., Pa.) said he plans to introduce his chairman's mark in September to set up House floor action in October.
Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Schuster has received assurances from House leadership that once the markup is done in his committee, floor time will be available in the short period the House is in session this fall.
The full Senate approved its version of the waterway bill in May by a strong, bipartisan vote of 83-14. That package tackles funding to modernize locks and dams and update river projects, and it directs the Army Corps of Engineers to increase efficiency.
The Senate version includes provisions supported by the agriculture industry to annually increase the amount of funding that is provided from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for port maintenance and dredging, to streamline the process for Corps projects while reducing project completion times and to free up money and increase the capacity of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund by taking the Olmsted Lock & Dam project out of the trust fund account.
The House bill is expected to include many of those preferred provisions in the Senate version.
The Senate bill would also increase the current diesel fuel user fee from 20 cents to 26 cents. The fee is paid by barge operators, who are on board with the increase.
Walmsey said farmers likely will need to absorb some of that fee increase, but even if they were asked to absorb the entire increase, it would amount to just a half-cent per bushel of production.
More than 60% of U.S. grain exports are transported via the inland waterways.
Agriculture industry lobbyist Steve Kopperud, in his Aug. 12 "Washington Report," noted that one new aspect of the House bill's framework — a piece designed to address Schuster's concern over too much power being vested in the Corps — would require the Corps to select projects for funding and submit that list to Congress for review and approval.
In addition to ensuring that the Corps is answerable for its expenditures and project selection, the system would force Congress to revisit WRRDA more frequently than it has in the past, Schuster said.
A waterway bill has not been reauthorized since 2007; before that, it was 2000. The law is supposed to be revisited every two years.
Traditionally, the waterway bill has had earmarks to "grease the wheels" for passage, but legislators won't have that luxury this go-around, Walmsley said.
Still, the "stars are starting to align" with recognition that now is the time to pass a new bill, he added.
The strong Senate vote and what appears to be a solid bipartisan agreement coming out of the House are encouraging in the current polarized environment in Washington, D.C., Walmsley added.
"We need to find wins, and infrastructure is where, typically, both sides of the aisle can come to an agreement."
Even Tea Party members can see funding waterways and ensuring the flow of commerce as falling within the true intent of the Constitution, he added.
If the House can mark up WRRDA in September and hold a vote in October, the bill will then go to conference with the Senate.
Although not working against a hard end-of-the-year deadline, Walmsley noted that the waterway bill is something that needs to get wrapped up this year so it doesn't get lost in larger surface transportation issues that will arise in 2014, such as MAP-21 reauthorization and discussion of rail and surface transportation matters.