The House appears to have reached a bipartisan agreement for its Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) although details remain slim. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Schuster, R., Penn., said he plans to introduce his chairman's mark in September to setup House floor action in October.
Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that Schuster has received assurances from House leadership that once markup was done in his committee, that there would be floor time available in the short time the House is in session this fall.
The full Senate approved its version of the waterways bill in May by a strong bipartisan vote of 83-14. That package tackles funding to modernize locks and dams, update river projects, and directs the Army Corps of Engineers to increase efficiency.
The Senate version includes provisions supported by the agriculture industry to annually increase the amount of funding that is provided from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for port maintenance and dredging; to streamline the process for Corps of Engineers projects and reduce project completion times; and to free up money and increase the capacity of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) by taking the Olmsted Lock and Dam project out of the trust fund account.
The Senate bill would also increase the current diesel fuel user fee of 20 cents to 26 cents. The fee is paid by barge operators, who are on board with the increase. Walmsey said farmers likely would need to absorb some of that increase in cost, but even if they were asked to absorb all the increase, it would amount to just a half cent per bushel.
Agricultural industry lobbyist Steve Kopperud in his Aug. 12 Washington Report, noted that one new aspect of the House framework designed to address Schuster’s concern over too much power being vested in the Corps of Engineers would require the Corps to select projects for funding and submit that list to Congress for review and approval. In addition to ensuring the Corps is answerable for its expenditures and project selection, the system would force Congress to revisit WRRDA more frequently than it has over time, Schuster said.
A waterways bill not been reauthorized since 2007; its previous reauthorization was in 2000. The law is supposed to be revisited every two years. Over 60% of U.S. grain exports are transported via the inland waterways.
Traditionally the waterways bill has been a bill with earmarks to "grease the wheels" in getting the bill across the finish line, which legislators won't have the luxury of doing this go around, Walmsley said. However, the "stars are starting to align" with recongition that now is the time to pass a new bill, he added.
The strong 83-14 bipartisan vote in the Senate and what appears to be a strong bipartisan agreement coming out of the House are encouraging in a politicized DC environment, Walmsley added. "We need to find wins, and infrastructure is where typically both sides of the aisle can come to an agreement." Even Tea Party folks can see funding waterways and ensuring the flow of commerce falling within the true intent of the constitution, he added.
If the House can markup the bill in September and have a vote in October, it will then go to conference. Although not working against a hard end of the year deadline, Walmsley noted this is something that needs to get wrapped up this year so it doesn't get lost in larger surface transportation issues that will arise in 2014 such as MAP-21 reauthorization and discussion of other rail and surface transportation matters.