Less than a week after one of most divisive chapters in congressional history, the House pulled itself together Wednesday and overwhelmingly approved legislation to fund water projects such as port expansions and flood-prevention efforts across the country.
The first Water Resources Development Act to clear the House since 2007 did so on a 417-3 vote, with opposition from just one Democrat (Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota) and two Republicans (Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Walter Jones of North Carolina).
"Mr. Speaker, this is how we ought to work," declared House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., after the vote Wednesday evening. "This is how the Congress ought to work with one another—all 435 of us. I don't mean that 435 are going to vote for the bill, but we have worked together on this bill."
Of course some work on the measure still lies ahead, with a few key differences to be worked out between the House bill and the Senate's version of WRDA.
One issue to be resolved involves the House bill's provisions for streamlining environmental reviews of water projects. Ahead of the bill's consideration, a number of groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued the measure would not allow for sufficient time to consider a project's potential impacts, and even some Democrats who voted for House passage raised concerns.
"I worry that the provisions included in the bill before us today will lead us down a path going back to those days of impunity and disregard for the well-being and concerns of the public, where actions were taken without any full appreciation or understanding of the environmental impact," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
But the bill's backers defended the streamlining provisions, saying no studies or reviews are being eliminated.
"No environmental law has been changed," said Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla. "Those studies instead of being done in a linear path are done simultaneously. It doesn't undo anything, it doesn't change anything, what it does is speed up the process."
Despite the criticism, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., emphasized throughout the debate that the legislation had broad bipartisan support. "Today the House overwhelmingly passed one of the most policy- and reform-focused measures of its kind in the last two decades," Shuster said in a statement after his bill was approved. "It is legislation like this that is going to improve the way we move infrastructure projects forward efficiently."
The bill must now be reconciled with a version passed in the Senate in May. The two measures are more similar than different, but there are a few important distinctions that could become points of contention in the conference committee.
The Senate bill authorizes more funding for water infrastructure projects—$12.5 billion over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office scored the House bill this week at a total of $8.2 billion through 2023.
House lawmakers may be reluctant to increase authorizations, however, given their repeated emphasis on Wednesday that their bill is fiscally responsible, in part, because it attempts to offset costs by defunding $12 billion in previously approved projects.
Another difference is that the House bill would leave final project approval in the hands of Congress, while the Senate bill would provide for executive-branch approval.
Shuster made clear that he considers congressional oversight an important provision of the legislation. "Our bill establishes a new transparent process for future bills ... without handing over our constitutional authority to the executive branch," he said. "I think it's very important ... that the Congress holds onto its constitutional authority and not give it over to the executive branch as we have done for decades."
The bills are fairly similar with respect to environmental provisions. Both impose a three-year, $3 million cap on feasibility studies for projects undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers.
At least one environmental advocate was optimistic, though, that Wednesday's debate signaled that the issue will come up again in conference committee. "It is clear from today's debate that environmental reviews are not the cause of delays in Corps projects and that many members of the House have very serious concerns with the provisions that would shortcut environmental reviews," said Melissa Samet, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. "This sends a strong message that these concerns must be addressed in conference."
A White House statement released ahead of the bill's passage on Wednesday also shed light into what issues might come up during reconciliation. The statement affirmed support for the House bill but noted that it could be improved, including the section on how projects are granted authorization.
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has said she looks forward to a conference committee on the two bills.
Fawn Johnson and Billy House contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 24, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.