WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has spent the last months bringing his colleagues up to speed on a less-than-sexy major port and inland waterway bill, pushing a media blitz involving Twitter and a quirky YouTube video.
Much of the campaign has been centered on convincing fiscal conservatives that although the Water Resources Reform and Development Act authorizes spending, spending on transportation infrastructure is worthwhile. The Founding Fathers believed in a strong federal role in transportation, and free market proponent Adam Smith supported a government role in public works to facilitate commerce, argues Shuster, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman.
It will become apparent in the next few weeks whether his campaign was successful, as the House is expected to begin marking up the bill next week and could consider it for a vote as soon as early October. The timing could be better, as Congress is also debating whether to raising the debt ceiling and faces the next wave of sequestration, a result of its inability to fix the U.S. debt crisis — not to mention the possibility of costly military strikes against Syria.
“Any bill that spends money at the end of the day is going to face opposition,” Julie Minerva, managing director of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips’ government and regulatory practice group. “Shuster has been taking proactive steps to make sure his colleagues realize this is a responsible bill and sometime you need to spend money to do some good.”
If the House can approve the bipartisan WRRDA, the path to conference with the Senate WRDA likely won't be too hard, as both bills are remarkably similar. The House version adds “Reform” to the title and takes a less aggressive approach to reforming the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, the key port dredging funding mechanism.
Knowing that many of his colleagues are reluctant to authorize more spending, Shuster focused on how WRRDA is key to keeping the U.S. globally competitive in the movement of goods and will reduce bureaucracy slowing down project completion.
“Ensuring our country has an efficient water transportation system is one of our most important responsibilities. This bill is about jobs,” Shuster said during a press conference following the release of the bill.
He also pointed out that although the bill would authorize $8 billion in new project construction and $2 billion in modification work, $12 billion worth of projects would be deauthorized. Boosting his case to fellow Republicans is language in the bill that looks to take back congressional authorization authority. The Senate version accepts the Army Corps of Engineers’ project authorization suggestions, a move House Republicans say equates to rubber-stamping Obama administration picks.
The House bill would avoid this by requiring the corps to submit to Congress an annual list of projects requested from non-federal interests, such as state and local governments. Congress would then use the report, which would include the potential benefit of the project, cost and availability of non-federal funding, to determine which projects should be authorized. Congress used to authorize projects via earmarks before they were banned. The House plans to choose what projects will be authorized in this bill but apparently doesn't view the picks as earmarks because the potential projects have already received federal funding for permitting studies.
Like the Senate bill, the House legislation aims to speed up studies relating to port and inland waterway projects. Environmental reviews can take more than 15 years, and unsteady federal funding only adds to delays once construction begins. Taking a page from the Corps’ “3-3-3” initiative, the bill would require all environmental studies to be finished in three year for under $3 million and involve Corps local, state and federal employees to conduct the study concurrently.
The House bill takes a less aggressive approach to reforming the HMTF. Whereas the Senate bill would give all Harbor Maintenance Taxes — the 0.125 percent levy on the value of imported cargo — back to ports, the House version would return no less than 80 percent of collected taxes to ports.
Roughly 65 percent of the $1.8 billion in estimated taxes in fiscal 2014 would go back to ports, and the House bill would increase that margin by 2 percent each year. The money not given to ports for dredging and jetty maintenance would be used to plug budget holes. Under the House bill, 10 percent of HMTF spending in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 would go to ports that handle less than a million tons of cargo annually.
The House bill would also shift the burden to pay for the overbudget and delayed Olmsted lock and dam project. Instead of relying solely on the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, the bill would have federal funding pay for a quarter of the project. The Senate version, however, would put the entire onus on the federal government, freeing up the IWTF for other inland waterway projects.