A new Water Resources Development Act—traditionally a bipartisan measure—has run into a partisan snag in the House.
Democrats are upset that, just days before a possible floor vote, Republicans deleted a Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund provision that was part of the WRDA that cleared committee in May. Democrats say that if the problem isn’t fixed, they will oppose the bill.
The WRDA measure authorizes funds for Army Corps of Engineers water projects and is one of the major infrastructure measures this year.
The provision, part of a bill that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) approved unanimously, would lift the cap on annual trust fund spending on Corps projects, starting in fiscal 2027.
But on Sept. 22, word spread that GOP leaders had taken the trust fund provision out of the bill. A T&I spokesman says via email that committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) “supports more investment in our infrastructure, but in order to ensure compliance with the Rules of the House and the Congressional Budget Act, we were required to remove the provision.”
The T&I committee’s top Democrat, Peter DeFazio (Ore.)—a strong supporter of the trust fund language—wrote to his colleagues on Sept. 23, urging them to vote against the House WRDA bill.
DeFazio said that in the past decade, less than 60% of the trust fund’s revenue has been spent on projects. He added that, in fiscal 2016, trust fund spending fell $400 million short of the $1.6 billion in revenue taken in.
DeFazio said in a Sept. 22 statement, “I'm incredibly disappointed that the Republican leadership has sabotaged a good, bipartisan bill that would have maintained and strengthened our ports, harbors and waterways, and our nation's economic competitiveness.”
DeFazio said that unless the WRDA bill is changed, he would oppose it.
He’s not the only one. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on Sept. 22 that because Republicans removed the trust fund provision, Democrats are “not going to be voting for that bill.”
The House WRDA problem comes only about a week after the Senate approved its WRDA version by an overwhelming 95-3 vote. That action, on Sept. 15, was a big lift to construction, engineering and water industry officials, who had been working hard to see the bill move through Congress this year.
The Senate bill doesn’t include language removing the trust fund spending limit.
WRDA-watchers are now waiting to see what the House will do. The next key event is a House Rules Committee meeting scheduled for the evening of Sept. 26. That panel will set the ground rules for the WRDA floor debate and decide which amendments will be permitted to be offered.
Sean O’Neill, Associated General Contractors of America senior director for infrastructure advancement, said in a Sept. 23 interview that “it’s too early to say” whether the House flap over the harbor trust fund will doom the bill.
O’Neill adds, “There are a lot of people that are trying to work to get the bill onto the floor and [approved and] off the floor.”
Another industry source says that members of the House appropriations and budget committees probably favored stripping out the trust fund provision from the WRDA. They view the language as an incursion on their turf by the Transportation and Infrastructure panel, which authorizes funding, generally subject to annual appropriations.
The source adds, “This is just one of those [actions] where you’re totally rewriting the power base. And this shifts it from the appropriators to the authorizers.”
The source notes that the harbor trust fund helps finance the Corps operation and maintenance account, the largest line-item in the agency’s annual civil works budget.
AGC and other industry groups, as well as key House and Senate lawmakers, have been working to return WRDAs to an every-other-year timetable, to provide more certainty in planning projects.
“To get them back on a two-year schedule is important,” O’Neill says. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re really pushing them to get this done this year.”
The last WRDA was enacted in 2014 but the previous measure became law back in 2007.
WRDA backers now face severe time pressure. The new battle comes with only days left before Congress takes its pre-election recess.
A further wrinkle is that there is a generally partisan dispute over funding for repairs and upgrades for drinking-water infrastructure for Flint, Mich., and other localities suffering severe problems with those systems.
The Senate-passed WRDA included funds for Flint and the other cities but the House T&I committee version did not. That panel doesn’t have jurisdiction over Safe Drinking Water Act matters.
Flint advocates on Capitol Hill also have been trying to get the drinking water funds attached to a different piece of legislation—a nearly government-wide stopgap funding bill that Congress must pass by Sept. 30 to avert agency shutdowns.
But so far, a recently introduced Republican-drafted stopgap, or continuing resolution, has no water funding for Flint and the other localities.