Sans Earmarks, Bipartisanship Propels Water Bill Forward

Amy Harder

The last time Congress passed legislation maintaining its waterways, the tea party didn’t exist, nearly half of the current House members weren’t in office, and earmarks were alive and thriving.

That was six years ago. Today, the tea-party faction of the Republican Party is often driving the House GOP’s agenda, new members are still learning their way around the Capitol, and earmarks are dead.

Any one of those factors taken in isolation would present a challenge for the leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., must now contend with all three simultaneously as they craft the first Water Resources Development Act since 2007.

“The water system is so important to us in this country,” Shuster said in a speech earlier this month to the Ripon Society, a Republican public-policy group. “When you look at the most effective and efficient way to transport things, it’s the water system.”

Reauthorizing WRDA, whose awkward acronym reflects well the wonky details that make up the actual law, is the top priority for the Transportation Committee this Congress. Panel aides have been working on a bill since January, and lawmakers hope to introduce formal legislation in September, which is later than the July rollout that was originally planned. The Senate already passed a reauthorization in May, 83-14.

“The water bill as Chairman Shuster and both sides have now agreed to is a good bill,” Rahall said in an interview with National Journal Daily earlier this month. “It’s not everything I wanted to see; it’s not everything Chairman Shuster wanted to see.”

Shuster and Rahall will need a healthy dose of bipartisanship to get past the roadblocks in this bill, which has historically been a collection of earmarked water projects that add up to an expensive authorization. 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. Since it’s an authorizing bill, and not a spending bill, lawmakers don’t need to provide a way to pay for it. Still, $23 billion is a staggering figure. By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office scored the Senate bill at $12.5 billion.

The leaders on the Transportation Committee have an even more fundamental task to perform, before they confront the problems presented by a lack of earmarks and an abundance of hefty price tags. They must teach their colleagues what exactly WRDA is and why they should care. “A lot of the members of the committee weren’t here” the last time the House drafted a WRDA bill, said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, chairman of the Water Resources Subcommittee. “So six months ago, if you say to them: ‘WRDA,’ they go like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

In its most basic sense, the Water Resources Development Act dates back to 1938 and addresses the health and maintenance of the country’s waterways, including modernizing locks, preventing waterways from flooding communities, and dealing with a host of related issues. Many lawmakers and experts say WRDA must consist of earmarked projects because waterways affect different parts of the country in different ways. These earmarks ensure an orderly review process by the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal engineering and construction agency housed in the Defense Department that carries out the law’s priorities. Without the earmarks, the law as written would shift most of the decision-making from Congress to the corps, which is what the Senate bill does.

Over the past few months, 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.

That school of thought aside, Shuster has pledged his allegiance to the earmark ban, as long as such a ban exists. That means the committee must somehow craft a bill historically made up almost entirely of earmarks without that particular tool.

“We’re trying to work a system where we at least have some control over the Corps of Engineers,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a committee member who chaired the panel from 2001 to 2007 and who’s known for his relentless support for earmarks (specifically his infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark from 2005).

“That will be the big challenge,” Young said of finding that balance. “Can we get that done? I don’t know.”

Aides are not divulging too many details about the bill, but you can expect it to be vastly different from previous iterations. In fact, the committee is adding the word “reform” to the bill and calling it the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.

“This bill is going to be very different from past WRDA bills, because we’re operating in the earmark-moratorium environment,” said a committee aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is going to be a reform bill that’s focused on policy reform.”

The expected policy changes include limiting the time that projects can take to get through the pipeline (some projects have taken 15 years); deauthorizing projects that have been sitting in the queue too long; and streamlining environmental reviews.

If and when the House passes its version of WRDA, the bill would go to a two-chamber conference, a traditional step in the legislative process that has become rare in today’s gridlocked environment. Coming to terms with the Senate version may be difficult if Shuster placates the conservative corners of his caucus.

“The Senate bill does nothing for anyone or any place,” Young said. He supports Shuster’s work on the bill right now, but that could change. “I’ll probably work against it if it cedes any power to the president.”

One House committee aide working on the bill is more optimistic and has met several times with the authors of the Senate bill, Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and ranking member David Vitter, R-La.

“We have a lot in common. We share similarities,” the aide said, adding, “[The bills] will be imminently conferenceable.”