Shuster’s dream: A water bill every two years

Thank you to Eric Sapirstein of ENS Resources for forwarding this article to BPC.

Shuster’s dream: A water bill every two years

By Kevin Robillard and Adam Snider

10/23/13 4:25 PM EDT

Bill Shuster thinks the House Transportation Committee can keep creating unicorns.

The Pennsylvania Republican’s version of the Water Resources Development Act, which unanimously passed out of the committee in September and was expected to win full House approval late Wednesday, is the rarest of creatures in this historically unproductive and dysfunctional Congress: It’s backed by both House Republicans and the White House and is expected to help create thousands of jobs, once lawmakers can reconcile it with the Senate’s version.

But one unicorn isn’t enough for Shuster, who wants Congress to pass another water infrastructure bill in 2015. And 2017. And 2019.

Passing a WRDA bill every two years — something Congress briefly managed to do in the late 1980s and early ’90s — would set a new course for the way lawmakers authorize flood control, navigation and aquatic restoration efforts, allowing members to select from a list of projects that have won the blessing of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Shuster aims to end the paralysis of the last several Congresses, which passed only two waters bills in the past 13 years, most recently in 2007.

“As soon as this bill becomes a law, we will start working on the next WRDA bill,” Shuster said after committee passage.

Other members, fully aware of Congress’s single-digit approval rating and the failure of the House to pass traditionally routine legislation like appropriations and farm bills, aren’t nearly as confident.

“There is nothing in the DNA of this Congress that says we can do another [WRDA bill] in two years,” Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) said during a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday.

Shuster’s bill, which he’s calling the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, would authorize about $8 billion in port, dam and flood protection projects. It would also weaken some environmental review requirements that Republicans blame for holding up projects, and contains provisions intended to speed up the often-plodding Army Corps of Engineers. The Senate passed its $12 billion version of the legislation in May.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee’s water panel, said passing a new bill every two years would be a tough task — but he still takes “the chairman at his word that he is determined to bring a WRDA bill forward every two years.”

“Our history is one that would suggest getting something like this done every two years would be a reach,” Bishop said in an interview, “but I think it’s something that we’re going to shoot for and hopefully achieve.”

The timeline for future water bills is important because of Congress’s role in directly authorizing port, dam, canal and flood protection projects. If Congress doesn’t pass WRDA bills, work can’t start on critical projects no matter how urgent the need.

Perhaps the best display of how little confidence other members have in Shuster’s goal is the behavior of the Florida delegation, which has been pushing to allow authorization of some projects that miss the deadline for inclusion in his WRDA bill.

Floridians say they’ve been burned before.

Lawmakers from the state cheered 13 years ago when Congress passed a WRDA that authorized a $7.8 billion effort to revitalize the Everglades. The assumption back then was that Congress would approved specific additional pieces of the Everglades work in new WRDA bills every two years, allowing the plan to continuously update and evolve. But that didn’t happen — even as major pieces of the project lagged past their deadlines and the price tag swelled.

“We can’t wait seven more years,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said, while arguing for an Everglades-related project that would lessen the Army Corps of Engineers’ dumping of polluted lake water into estuaries on the state’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While the foundation supports Shuster’s goal, “we can’t put all our eggs in that basket,” Eikenberg said.

Congress’s recent track record on other major transportation-related bills doesn’t bode well for getting a water bill done every two years. Take aviation policy: It took lawmakers 4 ½ years of passing 23 separate stopgap measures before they finally passed an aviation bill in early 2012 — and that measure lasts just four years.

Highway and road policy isn’t much different — a congressional impasse led to nine extensions over three years before the House and Senate finally came together to pass a measure in 2012. But that surface transportation bill runs out next year, leaving the Transportation Committee with a busy agenda that could easily stretch into the next Congress.

A major passenger rail bill is already overdue, and election-year politics in 2014 could easily stall action on a massively complicated highway and transit policy bill that will need billions of dollars just to maintain current spending levels.

A new FAA bill is due in two years and will probably be a top priority for the committee in the 114th Congress. If the highway bill gets put off and added to the 2015 workload, squeezing a water bill on that jam-packed agenda could be near impossible.

At the same time, if any House committee is going to produce a sudden string of bipartisan hits, Transportation is a good bet. Shuster, who represents the same central Pennsylvania district his father held for nearly three decades, has run the committee in a consensus-based manner along with ranking member Nick Rahall, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia.

There is some precedent for Shuster’s goals. From 1986 to 2000, Congress was able to pass WRDA bills seven times, including three in a four-year period when then-President Bill Clinton was battling House Republicans on a broad array of issues. But that productivity followed a 16-year period starting in 1970 in which disputes between the executive and legislative branches prevented any major civil works legislation from moving forward, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Shuster’s approach could end up being dropped during a conference committee with the Senate, which instead laid out specific criteria and would authorize any project that met them. But members of the House seem determined to keep their historic role in directing the corps.

“Rather than punting on those issues, this bill reserves those powers to this House and to this Congress,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said in a speech on the House floor backing the bill.

Shuster’s predecessor atop the committee, John Mica (R-Fla.), questions the need to do a water bill every two years, saying meeting the goal would be “hard to do.”

“Do you really need to? I don’t know,” Mica said. “We don’t know what the final law will be, but it could be configured so that you don’t have to do one that often.”

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