In the first of a series of speeches this summer intended to get the nation refocused on the economic recovery, President Obama on Wednesday brought up a topic that may surprise some: the nation's port infrastructure.
After spending much of his Galesburg, Ill., speech in recounting the nation's recent economic hardships and criticizing Republicans for standing in the way of an accelerated recovery, Obama previewed "what I'll be fighting for and why." And, right up top, he promised to do something about, of all things, ports:
Tomorrow, I'll also visit the port of Jacksonville, Florida, to offer new ideas for doing what America has always done best: building things. We've got ports that aren't ready for the new supertankers that will begin passing through the new Panama Canal in two years' time.
So, what's he talking about? The Panama Canal is undergoing one of its largest-ever expansions, a move that opens it up to larger ships that can carry as much as three times as much cargo. Once they get through, they have to unload somewhere—the Caribbean, Latin America, or at one of the dozen or so ports that line the East and Gulf Coasts. But to take on the bigger ships, many of the nation's ports need deeper harbors. And to deepen their harbors, they'll have to navigate the awkward politics of Congress.
Harbor-deepening projects were typically authorized every two years in an omnibus bill known as the Water Resources Development Act. But six years have lapsed since the last was passed. The projects in the bill are considered earmarks and, with the House ban on earmarks, that means lawmakers there are hamstrung.
Here's how National Journal Daily's Amy Harder, Fawn Johnson, and Rebecca Kaplan explain the problem in a story today:
Without the earmarks, the law as written would shift most of the decision-making from Congress to the [Army Corps of Engineers], which is what the Senate bill does.
Over the past few months, [House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill] Shuster has tried to present this basic conundrum both in public speeches and in private meetings with fellow lawmakers: You either earmark projects, or you give more power to the administration. "I have to make sure that I explain to my conference that if you do it in a new way—as opposed to the way we used to do it—we will cede our power to the executive branch," Shuster said at a speech in March to the National Waterways Conference.
For America's ports to take advantage of the newer, bigger ships (and the economic activity they would bring), Congress has to act. And for Congress to act, the House earmark ban has to be reckoned with. And that's an uphill battle, the writers explain:
The 2007 bill became law only after both chambers of Congress voted to override a veto by then-President George W. Bush; it called for almost $23 billion in spending across roughly 900 earmarks.
That may sound like a lot, but such investments are well worth it, the Army Corps of Engineers found in a report last year:
Despite the recent worldwide recession, the expected general trend for international trade is one of continued growth as the world's population and standard of living grow. As international trade expands, the number of post-Panamax vessels is expected to increase. The Nation's ability to attract these vessels and allow efficient use of their capacity is the key to realizing the transportation cost savings these vessels represent. For example, the Corps investigation of the Port of Savannah indicates a $652 million dollar investment where the benefits far exceed the cost.
The nation could stand to gain a lot, economically, if only Congress can circumnavigate its own earmark ban.