|House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) during floor debate. C-SPAN
The House took an important step toward making harbor maintenance funds easier to spend in a 296-109 vote that angered Republican budget hawks.
At issue is the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which currently contains a $9.3 billion balance in unspent revenue.
The funds have previously been used to offset the federal deficit rather than being spent on actual port projects, despite being backed by a tax of 0.125% on the value of commercial cargo loaded at federally funded ports.
That’s irked House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who this spring introduced H.R. 2440 to unlock the trust fund.
Speaking on the floor yesterday afternoon, DeFazio accused Congress of “stealing” the trust fund money for decades by spending it on things other than port infrastructure.
“We hear so much about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, our highways, our drinking water,” he said. “We say we don’t have the money. But here we do have the money, and Congress is stealing it!”
Opposition to the bill was lead by Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
He argued that passing the bill would disrupt the recently enacted budget agreement and increase the federal deficit.
“My question is what was the point of us going through that arduous process of negotiating a bipartisan bicameral agreement with the president so that just three months later we could shoot a $10 billion hole in it?” he asked.
This is DeFazio’s third attempt to unlock the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. He worked with the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s previous two Republican chairs to try and pass the legislation as part of water infrastructure authorization bills, only to have the language removed by House leadership.
Calling the vote “a long time coming,” he traded barbs with its opponents on the floor, including Womack.
“Why would somebody from [Arkansas], where half of their soybean crop is exported, be opposed to more efficiently moving their goods out of the country? I don’t understand that,” he said.
Womack shot back: “It is not possible for me just to consider how we are going to get soybeans out of Arkansas as the sole limiting factor on how we budget. It is important to my producers, but at the end of the day, we are $23 trillion in debt.”
When Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) argued that passing the bill would set a bad precedent, asking, “If we bust the caps for this, what other programs do we have to fund?” DeFazio challenged him to “name another program with a dedicated tax where we are diverting the money to the treasury instead of spending it on a delegated need.”
Stewart said he would have to research the question, but Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) later said the Land and Water Conservation Fund is similar.
DeFazio argued the two funds are not comparable because one is paid for via a fee on oil producers, while the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is “a tax assessed on the American people as a sales tax.”
DeFazio had some bipartisan backup on the floor, with Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) arguing that the budget-based arguments don’t make sense.
“If I ran a nonprofit and collected funds from the public to provide health care to someone who needed it, and I took the money and spent it somewhere else, there’s a word for that in the private sector, and it’s called embezzlement and people go to jail for it,” Graves said.
“Yes, I’m concerned about the debt and I want to make sure we address it,” said DeFazio, “but this has been going on far too long.”