As Congress comes back after weeks of electioneering, the political landscape in Washington is on the cusp of changing dramatically. With a Republican President on January 20th and a Republican-controlled Congress on January 3rd, you would think that the lame-duck Republican-controlled Congress would prefer to put everything on hold until next year when there will be no threat of a presidential veto. But there’s no threat of President Obama vetoing the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, usually referred to as WRDA16, so the coast is clear [pardon the pun]. With its strong bipartisan support, now is the time to pass WRDA16. It’s a win for both parties and the Nation.
The picture for WRDA passage gets much dimmer if it’s delayed until next year. With Democrats just a couple of seats short of controlling the Senate, normally they would be setting their sights on 2018 as a time when they could make gains. In fact, they will be focusing on protecting each and every one of the seats they currently have. Here’s why. Of those Senators with expiring 6-year terms, 23 are Democrats, two are Independents who caucus with the Democrats, and only 8 are Republicans. That is a recipe for the Senate Republican leadership to focus on measures that show their differences with the opposition, not where they agree. With its bipartisan support and high price tag (read below), WRDA is not a good candidate for passage in 2017-2018.
With Congress returning today, it’s too soon to say what the incoming Trump administration will do. The articles you’ve been reading on that subject are guesswork given the unpredictable nature of the next President. The congressional leadership will decide what they want to do in the few working days left in this year and what they want to put off until Mr. Trump takes office. Given the unknowns about next year (including whether Speaker Ryan will be able to hold onto his job and, if so, at what price), there is at least one measure with strong bipartisan support that can be passed that will make a difference for jobs and the economy. That measure is WRDA16.
This past September, the Senate passed its WRDA16 bill (S2848) by a vote of 95 to 3. It’s hard to fine the same level of approval for the Senate Chaplain’s daily prayer. A few days later, the House passed its version of the bill (HR 5530) by a vote of 399 to 25. This is an infrastructure bill with strong bipartisan support. You’d have to go back to the previous WRDA bill in 2014 to see that type of near-unanimity.
What does WRDA Do? Before there were highways, railroads and airplanes, there were rivers, floods, canals, ports and coasts. In the mid-1800’s, the federal government initiated a series of major internal improvements, most of which were focused on water transportation of goods. By the mid-20th Century, those types of initiatives were packaged in what was soon-to-be-called WRDA legislation. You can’t build or modify a Federal water resource project without a congressional authorization. In fact, you can’t perform the required study of any new or modified project without a separate congressional authorization. These come in WRDA legislation as do changes in Federal policies governing water projects. Without WRDA, the water resources infrastructure of the Nation does not adapt to changing needs and new science.
What doesn’t WRDA Do? It doesn’t appropriate a single dollar to any project or study that it authorizes. It “authorizes” those projects and studies to seek funding through the appropriations process. [The Senate version of WRDA16 does appropriate funds for drinking water infrastructure. However, it doesn’t appropriate any funds for any of the Corps of Engineers projects or studies or policies and programs it authorizes.] The price tag for WRDA assumes that every dollar of its new projects and policies is actually appropriated through separate legislation over the next 10 years.
So, if the newly-elected President and the new 115th Congress want to do any initiatives on infrastructure (and if you Google that subject you’ll see indications that they do), the water resources measures must be authorized now so they can receive funding in FY18 – and that means Congress must pass WRDA now.
I’m concerned that the differences between the House and Senate WRDA16 bills are so great that they won’t be able to be resolved in the short time Congress has left this year. Delaying action until next year means that the new water resource initiatives in both versions of WRDA will get pushed to the back of the line with most funding not coming until FY19. With a push from the business community that relies so heavily on water transportation and the varied interests in the water resources community, I think Congress can get this done.
There’s too much at stake for jobs, the economy, and the environment to focus on anything but passing WRDA Now!
If you have an opinion, please send it to me (email@example.com) or tweet it under the #WRDANow hashtag to @HDMarlowe and anyone else who needs to hear your thoughts.
Full disclosure: I have a client (the City of Solana Beach, CA) which would be authorized for construction by WRDA16