Technically It Isn’t Pork, but It’s Close

Bill to fund water-infrastructure projects has lawmakers boasting about all the money they’ll bring home — maybe.

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 06: Container ships are seen at the dock as the PortMiami starts up a dredging project on December 6, 2013 in Miami, Florida. The project is deepening the Ports channel to minus 50/52 feet which will make it the only U.S. Atlantic port south of Virginia that will be able to accommodate the super-sized container vessels that will begin passing through the expanded Panama Canal in 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Billy House
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Billy House
May 12, 2014, 3:34 p.m.

From the so-called “Great Wall of Louisi­ana” to Ever­glades-re­lated needs to port-deep­en­ing in Ore­gon, a once-fa­mil­i­ar type of brag­ging fever has re­turned to law­makers this week as they seek cred­it for pro­jects con­tained in a House-Sen­ate deal on an $8.2 bil­lion wa­ter-in­fra­struc­ture bill.

Le­gis­lat­ive ear­marks that for dec­ades were placed in spend­ing bills as law­makers’ loc­al pet pro­jects no longer ex­ist due to a con­gres­sion­al ban — tech­nic­ally, at least. But today a close cous­in to out­lawed pork is alive and well, as evid­enced by the chest-pump­ing over up­com­ing ac­tion on the first Wa­ter Re­sources De­vel­op­ment Act con­fer­ence agree­ment since 2007.

House and Sen­ate con­fer­ees last week privately reached agree­ment after nearly six months of ne­go­ti­ations on their re­spect­ive ver­sions of a bill to au­thor­ize fund­ing for im­prove­ments to ports, wa­ter­ways, and pro­jects tied to flood pro­tec­tion, drink­ing wa­ter, dams, and en­vir­on­ment­al res­tor­a­tion.

The le­gis­lat­ive text of their com­prom­ise is ex­pec­ted to be re­leased Tues­day, and the bill is up for votes in the Sen­ate this week and the House next week. Pres­id­ent George W. Bush ve­toed the last bill in 2007, only to see the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Con­gress over­ride it. This year’s bill is not ex­pec­ted to face such a bumpy ride.

Steve El­lis of the budget watch­dog group Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense re­minds that an au­thor­iz­a­tion is only “a li­cense to hunt — money, that is.” A pro­ject’s in­clu­sion in this meas­ure does not guar­an­tee fund­ing in the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

Still, get­ting a pro­ject in­to an au­thor­iz­a­tion meas­ure is a ne­ces­sary first step in se­cur­ing that money in a later spend­ing bill, if ever. And law­makers aren’t about to let their suc­cess in that go un­her­al­ded.

Even be­fore the bill’s con­tents have been pub­licly re­leased, some mem­bers are dish­ing out press re­leases about pro­jects in­cluded in WRDA for their dis­tricts and states.

“This is a ma­jor hur­ricane and flood pro­tec­tion bill that will provide safety for Louisi­anans,” de­clared Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter in a news re­lease list­ing sev­er­al items, in­clud­ing the massive Mor­ganza-to-the Gulf-pro­ject, a com­plex set of hur­ricane and storm dam­age-re­duc­tion works that some crit­ics have dubbed the “Great Wall of Louisi­ana.” (Some call it a boon­doggle.)

Vit­ter is the lead Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an ne­go­ti­at­or on the bill, which helped to give him a head start on brag­ging about what’s ac­tu­ally in it. But Vit­ter is not the only con­fer­ee to have rushed out press re­leases or state­ments.

“Happy to sign #WR­RDA con­fer­ence re­port, which in­cludes more $$ for dredging Ore­gon ports,” tweeted Rep. Peter De­Fazio, an Ore­gon Demo­crat.

“The WR­RDA Con­fer­ence re­port is good news for the whole state of Flor­ida,” said an­oth­er con­fer­ee, Rep. Cor­rine Brown, D-Fla. “Along with Au­thor­iz­a­tion for both Mile Point and JAX­PORT chan­nel dredging, the Con­fer­ence re­port in­cludes au­thor­iz­ing lan­guage for the Cent­ral and South Flor­ida Ever­glades pro­ject, Port Canaver­al Har­bor, Lake Worth In­let, and Bis­cayne Bay.”

Budget watch­dog El­lis and oth­ers note that the hard part it still to come. Left out of most of these boast­ful press re­leases are ex­plan­a­tions that most pro­jects — though lis­ted in an au­thor­iz­a­tion bill — may nev­er ac­tu­ally see a dime of fed­er­al money through the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

In real­ity, there is a back­log of au­thor­ized pro­jects that would cost between $60 bil­lion and $80 bil­lion. The House ver­sion of WRDA will seek to “de-au­thor­ize” about $12 bil­lion worth of those pro­jects.

There are oth­er things to look for in the con­fer­ence agree­ment this week, in­clud­ing some pro­posed re­forms. One big change, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al law­makers’ press re­leases, would set aside more money from the Har­bor Main­ten­ance Trust Fund for port de­vel­op­ment. Cur­rently, al­most half of the fund is trans­ferred each year to the fed­er­al budget’s gen­er­al fund.

The res­ult has been the short­chan­ging of some states such as Cali­for­nia, where many coastal cit­ies say they are pay­ing more in­to the har­bor fund than they get back. Cali­for­nia ports have few­er dredging needs than oth­er parts of the coun­try, so they’ve been push­ing for ex­pan­ded use of the fund for oth­er types of pro­jects dock­side.

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