THE House Transportation Committee unanimously approved bipartisan water resources reform legislation last Thursday, setting up potential floor action in October.
The Senate has already passed its version, and it may end up being one of the few showings of bipartisanship between the two chambers.
The committee held a markup on H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA), which is touted as cutting federal red tape and bureaucracy, streamlining the infrastructure project delivery process, fostering fiscal responsibility and strengthening water transportation networks to promote America's competitiveness, prosperity and economic growth.
Historically, Congress has passed such legislation every two years to provide clear direction to the Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, but no bill has been signed into law since 2007.
Committee chairman Rep. Bill Schuster (R., Pa.) is "100% committed" to getting things back to regular order where bills will be considered every two years. This bill, he said, represents a good first step in establishing needed reforms and changes to the way the U.S. addresses waterway and infrastructure needs.
Schuster said at the heart of the bill is the notion that transportation via U.S. waterways is the lowest-cost option and the "foundation for growth to foster a more robust economy."
In the past, earmarks were often used to "grease the wheels" of waterway bill passages, but Schuster was quick to point out that this bill offers no earmarks.
In addition, it establishes a new, transparent process for future bills to review and prioritize water resource development activities with strong congressional oversight.
Schuster pointed out that the bill keeps oversight in the hands of Congress, not the executive branch or the Corps, which is "how it should be" as the elected body.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director at the Soy Transportation Coalition, said positive components of the bill for agriculture include efforts to streamline the approval process for locks and dams, opening the door for alternative financing such as private equity and bonding and a greater emphasis on maintenance.
"As I routinely argue, 'A predictably good inland waterway system is better than a hypothetically great one,'" Steenhoek said.
The House bill specifically de-authorizes $12 billion of old, inactive projects that were authorized prior to the 2007 bill and fully offsets new authorizations with de-authorizations. It also sunsets new authorizations to prevent future project backlogs, such as the "poster child" for the system's ineptness, the Olmstead Lock & Dam project, with its decades of backlogs and soaring costs.
House water resources and environment subcommittee chairman Rep. Bob Gibbs (R., Ohio) also said WRRDA empowers non-federal entities with the ability to contribute to projects and do so faster and more economically. Specifically, it maximizes the ability of non-federal interests to contribute their own funds to move authorized studies and projects forward. It also expands the ability of non-federal interests to contribute funds to expedite the evaluation and processing of permits.
A handful of amendments were introduced but later withdrawn. Each was aimed at increasing allocations under the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Currently, only about 50% of taxes paid into the fund actually go towards dredging and port maintenance, as originally intended.
The House bill takes a step in the right direction by increasing the share to 65% by the end of 2014 and incrementally increasing it 2% each year to reach 80% by 2020.
Schuster raised points of order on some of the amendments regarding the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund because it would require changes in the tax code.
The committee did approve a manager's amendment, which offered some minor changes to the original bill.
Agricultural interests encouraged the House Ways & Means Committee to include a barge fuel tax to improve the revenue stream for the Inland Waterway Trust Fund to ensure that projects do not continue to fall behind.
“While we are very pleased with the action by the House Transportation Committee, the job is not done,” National Corn Growers Assn. president Pam Johnson said. “In order to build the infrastructure approved by the committee, we need the (House) Ways & Means Committee to approve funding to come from the private sector to pay for it.”
Regarding the future floor action timeline, Republican committee staff said, "We are optimistic that the bill can see House action next month. The floor schedule, of course, will be determined by House leadership."