Thursday, January 31, 2013

Senate EPW Committee Leaders Anticipate New WRDA Proposal Within Weeks

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) both emphasized in a Thursday (January 31) hearing that they intend to have a bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, or "WRDA," available for the Committee's and full Senate's consideration sometime within the next several weeks.  The bill would be intended in part, Sen. Boxer noted, to fix ongoing problems related to the funding for maintenance of and improvements to the nation's harbors and inland waterway navigation system.

In Thursday's hearing (information available here), focusing on the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, a consistent theme made by most Committee members and several witnesses was that only about half of the revenues coming into that Trust Fund (from the Harbor Maintenance Tax) were being targeted each year for harbor maintenance work around the country (with the rest being allowed to accrue to offset other, unrelated, Federal spending).  Witnesses and Committee Senators alike stressed the need to address that discrepancy in a new WRDA bill.

 Although not an official hearing topic, the insolvency of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund was also mentioned by Senators Boxer and Vitter, and other panel members as a problem in search of a solution in a new WRDA bill.  The Chairwoman noted that the Committee's WRDA bill would reform the Act to expand the sources of funding available to water resources projects, and provide funding for water infrastructure projects that would be sufficient to meet current and future needs.

Sen. Boxer also noted that the bill's authors believe that they have "figured out a way" to address the issue of Congressional earmark restrictions.  Past WRDA bills would typically name and authorize funding for numerous, specific projects, a project designation meeting the congressional definition of an "earmark" ("congressional earmark" - House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a)). Since the last WRDA bill was passed, the House has placed a ban on earmarks; a ban that would largely put a stop to the past WRDA authorization process.  That earmark ban would necessitate changes to WRDA that provide a mechanism for identifying and prioritizing funding for needed water resource projects, while not specifically naming projects.

WRDA is a large public works bill that periodically authorizes flood control, navigation, and water resource environmental projects and studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, although it importantly does not appropriate funds for those projects and programs. WRDA projects and costs authorized under the act have typically far outstripped the revenue from their two major funding sources: the Inland Waterway Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, both of which are vastly oversubscribed and fiscally unsound.

Congress passed the last WRDA in 2007. Previously, WRDA bills were passed in 1974, 1976, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, 1999 and 2000. The Environment and Public Works Committee held a WRDA hearing late in 2012, laying the groundwork its consideration of the bill this year. In her opening statement at the 2012 hearing, Boxer noted that the draft 2012 bill made "essential policy reforms, including increasing flexibility for non-Federal sponsors of Corps projects."  It is very likely that the bill that will be introduced in the coming weeks will largely mirror that 2012 draft.

No comments:

Post a Comment