WASHINGTON — The approach the U.S. House of Representatives takes in tackling the long-delayed Water Resources Development Act over the coming months could signal how the chamber will deal with the next federal surface transportation bill.
Although the House version of WRDA is expected to mirror that of the already approved Senate version, how the former handles two issues could be telling regarding earmarks and funding in the next highway bill. In a broader sense, the House debate over WRDA, which was last passed in 2007, will signal whether the chamber can move past political rhetoric to tackle the nation’s freight infrastructure challenges. Representatives could begin marking up the bill as soon as this month but will more likely start in early fall, considering the busy congressional schedule ahead of the August recess.
The WRDA mark-up will be the first under Rep. Bill Shuster, the new Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair, and the Pennsylvania Republican has vowed to take a bipartisan approach to transportation issues. His predecessor, John Mica, R-Fla., said the same but failed to deliver when it came to the most recent surface transportation bill, known as MAP-21. The House last year had to use a congressional trick — approving a funding extension — to enter conference with the Senate, which passed a strongly bipartisan version.
The House will have to take another stab soon, as the current two-year, $109 billion act expires by the end of September 2014. But this time around the need for increased funding will be even graver, as the Highway Trust Fund, excluding general fund injections, will be in the red by $9.7 billion in two years, according to federal projections.
Earmark Ban Could Hinder Progress
The congressional earmark ban stymied the House’s attempt to pass a surface transportation bill, and the measure aimed at fiscal constraint continues to give the chamber headaches in drafting the newest WRDA. Unlike the Senate, the House isn’t comfortable with automatically accepting the Army Corps of Engineers’ project authorization list, because representatives say it cedes too much control to the Obama administration.
“We have a responsibility and we have forgone (our) responsibility by limiting our ability to rate projects,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., on June 5 at a House T&I hearing.
Of the 25 Army Corps projects awaiting authorization through WRDA, only three are port projects. The Port of Jacksonville is seeking the go-ahead for a $36.9 million navigation fix, known as Mile Point, while the Port of Savannah needs reauthorization of its $652 million harbor deepening project after environmental protection measures raised the price tag. The Port of Freeport needs authorization of a $237 million plan to deepen the Freeport Harbor Channel so it can handle larger liquefied natural gas tankers. Aside from several inland waterway projects, most projects awaiting authorization are aimed at ecosystem restoration and flood protection.
But the House hasn’t said how to it plans to authorize projects but not violate the earmark ban. Congress has authorized port and inland waterway projects “by name since 1824,” and there is some hope that the House would ease the earmark ban when it came to WRDA, said Waterways Council CEO and President Michael Toohey. There has been talk of doing just that, but no single consensus has emerged on easing the ban when it comes to transportation project authorization, said Sean Connaughton, chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ standing committee on water transportation. Easing the earmark ban on highway and bridge projects would also make passing the next surface transportation bill easier.
“The conventional wisdom is that if the earmark ban is eased, infrastructure will be where it happens,” said Ray Bucheger, a federal policy and legislative consultant with FBB Federal Relations.
Inland Waterway Industry Pleads for Tax Increase
The other major issue to watch out for when the House begins marking up WRDA is whether it accepts the inland waterway industry’s plea to raise taxes on itself. Barge operators and their shipper customers want Congress to raise the fuel tax of 20 cents by 6 to 9 cents so the Army Corps can ramp up fixing the aging inland waterway network. A penny tax increase equates to about $4.6 million in additional annual funding. The industry is less enthused about the Obama administration proposal to increase vessel fees to boost the Inland Waterway Trust Fund and argues raising lock fees would disproportionally hurt some shippers and carriers.
Despite the industry’s willingness to tax itself, there is no guarantee that the House, which unlike the Senate has the authority to write revenue measures in WRDA, will approve the tax hike. Fears of being criticized by political opponents for raising taxes could dampen House support. Taxpayers for Common Sense last year targeted legislation that would shift the funding responsibility for dam construction and major rehabilitation from the trust fund to the federal government. The Waterways Are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act of 2012, better known as WAVE 4, is a “riverboat rip-off” that would line the pockets of barge operators at the expense of taxpayers, who already are funding 90 percent of system, the Washington-based spending watchdog says.
The inland waterway industry counters that increasing federal funding for lock and dams is no different that Uncle Sam helping out the national highway system and airports, with trucking companies and airlines helped as a result. The Waterways Council adds that the old way of building and funding critical lock and dam projects no longer works, as massive project over-runs and construction timetables of more than 30 years show.
There are signs, however, that fiscal conservatives are shifting their stance. Toohey said even some Tea Party-affiliated House members are realizing the proposed barge fuel tax increase isn’t a typical tax hike.
“Senator (David) Vitter (R-La.) has actually told us that he has talked to Grover Norquist and (the anti-tax activist) views this as a user fee wanted by less than 300 people and he will not score this as a tax increase,” Toohey said at a June 24 press briefing
Adding fuel to his argument is Toohey's interpretation of a quote from then-General George Washington.
"I could not help taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States, from maps and the information of others; and could not but be struck with the immense diffusion and importance of it, and with the goodness of that Providence, which has dealt her favors to us so profuse a hand. Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them," Washington wrote in a letter to the Chevalier de Chastellux in 1783.
Toohey interprets the quote as the future president stating that the federal government must help inland waterways shoulder their infrastructure burden. Steve Ellis, vice president at TCS, argues that Washington doesn't specfically say the government should develop inland waterways, as "we" refers to the entire country.
The argument shared by the founding father and Toohey parallels the position of Shuster on the role of the federal government in transportation infrastructure spending. The son of noted transportation advocate and former T&I Committee chair Bud Shuster often cites free market proponent Adam Smith’s view that the three essential duties of government are defense, justice and transportation.
Whether or not the House grants the inland waterway industry’s request could suggest how the chamber will respond to trucking industry’s willingness to raise the federal diesel tax. The American Trucking Association hasn’t said how much of a diesel tax raise its members are willing to take on, but it does support gas and diesel hikes and may even accept an increase just for latter under certain circumstances. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pointed to the trucking and inland waterway industries’ willingness to pay more in taxes as proof that the private sector is willing to pay more to improve the national infrastructure even if Congress and the Obama administration aren’t.
“Shippers are for it. Truckers are for it. Simpson-Bowles (a deficit reduction plan) was for it ... The Chamber is for it,” said U.S Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue said earlier this year. “The bottom line is that the private sector is ready to pay its share to help maintain public investment in public infrastructure, which will improve productivity and enhance our nation’s competitiveness,”
Clarification: This story was updated to show that George Washington was not yet president when he wrote the quoted letter to the Chevalier de Chastellux.