The House Shows It Can Unite by Passing Mammoth Water Bill

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03: A man fishes on a pier that looks out at New York harbor during a dense fog advisory on October 3, 2012 in New York City. The fog, which was due to lift in the afternoon, caused poor visibility and flight delays at several major airports across the mid-Atlantic region. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
National Journal
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.

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