November 8, 2013

Does the Water Bill Vote Signal A New Day For Infrastructure?

Becky Weber

Just a few weeks ago, few could imagine this headline: “$8 Billion Federal Infrastructure Bill Passes House with Nearly Unanimous Vote” being possible, let alone real. But last week, just days after the end of the Congressional impasse on government spending and raising the debt limit that resulted in a government shutdown, the House of Representatives passed a significant water resources development bill by an overwhelming vote of 417-3, despite opposition by at least 10 conservative Tea-Party related groups. Had the world just begun to turn back upright from its Alice in Wonderland state? One could almost hear the voices of folks all over the country who care about infrastructure singing the Proud Mary refrain, “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ on the River.”

HR 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (WRRDA) authorizes federal improvements for ports, dams, navigation channels, flood protection and environmental restoration projects and sets policies on how such projects will be developed and constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Consistent with House Rules, the bill does not contain traditional “earmarks,” but creates a new authorization system for key projects. The “reform” in the bill’s title is very intentional, as the bill makes several policy changes to streamline a federal approval process that is notoriously slow and cumbersome. The bill was developed and shepherded by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) in a bipartisan fashion with Ranking Member Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV) and moved smoothly through the Committee and to the House floor where it received an overwhelming vote. For those who’ve been around transportation for a while, observing this bill move was downright nostalgic, as it hearkened back to days when infrastructure bills were almost always popular and attracted bipartisan support. The bill will now go to conference with a corresponding Senate bill.

The water resources programs were six years overdue for an authorization, the last one being enacted in 2007. On his maiden voyage with his first major infrastructure bill as a new Chairman, Chairman Shuster worked his Leadership, Conference and individual Members hard for many months to persuade them that this bill was important for business, the economy, jobs, competitiveness and trade and that the reforms in it showed that this wasn’t your grandfather’s traditional federal infrastructure bill. An alphabet-soup list of almost 100 various industry, public sector and labor groups lined up to support the bill. After the sting of public blame for the government shutdown, Congress appeared eager to show they could work together to pass a bill that would be good for the economy and create jobs. However, the week of the vote, ten conservative Tea-party related groups including Freedom Works, Heritage Action for America, National Taxpayers Union and others sent a letter up to the Hill urging a no vote on House passage. As stated in their letter, they objected to its authorization levels and the new authorization system for projects, and further, they alleged that the bill failed to deliver real reforms. The battle lines were drawn. However, after the Republican Conference walked the plank with its ultra-conservative wing for 16 days during the shutdown, on Wednesday night October 23rd, WRRDA passed with all but 2 Republican votes – Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC). A third no vote came from Democrat Collin Peterson (D-MN), who was upset that the bill did not include an authorization for a project in his district.

The strong vote offers some real hope for the fate of future infrastructure bills that lie ahead, particularly the Big Daddy of them all, the surface transportation reauthorization bill which funds large federal highway and transit programs and is due to expire next September. The Highway Trust Fund, primarily funded by Federal fuel taxes (which haven’t been raised since 1993), is on course to be in the red by the end of the fiscal year. Transportation leaders on Capitol Hill will need to find new revenue sources to augment trust fund spending just to keep critical surface transportation programs going at their current levels, let alone to increase them. This is all happening at a time when The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the country a much-publicized “D” grade on the condition of our national infrastructure. With the economy still limping along, the reauthorization’s effect on construction jobs is huge, not to mention the future of the country’s crumbling Interstates, bridges and transit systems. However many ultra-conservative groups and some like-minded Members of Congress make no attempt to hide their zeal for their ultimate goal of deep-six’ing the federal fuel tax itself and dismantling federal transportation programs completely along with it, devolving them back to states and cities. Just this week, the American Enterprise Institute released a piece entitled, “Actually, America Doesn’t Have a Trillion-Dollar Infrastructure Crisis.”

While the surface transportation bill will be more complex and politically perilous than the water resources bill because of its revenue issues, the WRRDA vote shows a crack in the armor of conservative opposition to federal infrastructure spending. So it’s possible that people might be able to look forward to driving on bridges and Interstates that aren’t rusting and collapsing beneath them and one might even hear “Dancing in the Streets” being sung in the halls of Congress next fall.