The House Shows It Can Unite by Passing Mammoth Water Bill

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National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Oct. 23, 2013, 4:27 p.m.

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 JohnsonBilly House contributed to this article.
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