Friday, January 18, 2013

U.S. Congress in 2013: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Today we cover the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the second in a series of previews of U.S Congressional committees of particular relevance to Mississippi River Basin water resource issues in the upcoming 113th Congress (To view our earlier coverage of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, see here).

Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) will head this Committee.  Vitter follows in the footsteps of outgoing Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK), who paired up with Boxer in the last Congress to pass against stiff odds a comprehensive transportation bill, as well as an aviation bill (Inhofe stepped down from the Ranking Member role under Republican Caucus rules limiting position tenures).

The first item on the Committee's docket in 2013 will likely be reauthorization of the massive water resources law known as the Water Resources Development Act, or "WRDA."  WRDA is a bulky 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 bills are designed to be passed every two years; however, Congress passed the last WRDA in 2007. Previously, WRDA bills were passed in 1974, 1976, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, 1999 and 2000.  The Committee held a WRDA hearing late in 2012, laying the groundwork for consideration of a bill this year. In her opening statement at the hearing, Boxer noted that the draft 2012 bill made "essential policy reforms, including increasing flexibility for non-Federal sponsors of Corps projects," and that it recognized "the need to expand the sources of funding available to water resources projects (since) (f)unding for water infrastructure projects has been insufficient to meet current needs."  Vitter, although not considered to be environmentally liberal, may team up with Boxer and champion many of the WRDA reforms envisioned by the Chairwoman, since his Louisiana constituents have strong interests in ports, barge traffic, flood management and water quality.

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. This is due in large part to the past WRDA tradition of most every congressional member placing water resources projects in their home districts or states into the WRDA bill (a list of projects that in the past have been solicited before the bill is drafted by the EPW Committee and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee). Such projects for the most part would now meet the congressional definition of an "earmark" ("congressional earmark" - House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a)). And the current House ban on earmarks would largely put a stop to that process, arguably necessitating changes to WRDA that provide some mechanism for identifying and prioritizing funding for needed water resource projects.

Given its huge price tag, WRDA reauthorization discussions will likely be quickly brought into the fiscal cliff debate that will take up much of Congress's and the Administration's attention through at least the first quarter of 2013.

Apart from WRDA, the state of the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory regime will likely take up a lot of the Committee's time this year, as it did in 2012. Once again in 2013, we can expect to hear GOP members calling EPA regulations over-reaching and job-stifling, and see Democrats rebutting those charges to give the Agency and its soon-to-be-new Administrator some political cover.  Under the fairly remote scenario that carbon capping legislation is seriously considered this year, the EPW Committee would be the main Committee where the terms of such legislation would be hammered out.  Boxer has historically championed capping greenhouse gas emissions, something that Vitter and his Republican committee colleagues may be averse to doing.  The Committee may also take up the issue of reforming the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, something that both Boxer and Vitter have said they would like to accomplish.

Below is the complete Committee member roster listed alphabetically by party, highlighting new Committee members (italicized) and those from Mississippi River Basin states (underlined) (including links to Congressional Internet home pages for the Committee's nine Mississippi River Basin senators).

Majority Members
  • Max Baucus (D-MT)
  • Barbara Boxer (D-CA) Chairwoman
  • Benjamin L. "Ben" Cardin (D-MD)
  • Thomas R. "Tom" Carper (D-DE)
  • Kirsten Elizabeth Gillibrand (D-NY)
  • Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ)
  • Jeff Alan Merkley (D-OR)
  • Bernard "Bernie" Sanders (I-VT)
  • Thomas S. "Tom" Udall (D-NM)
  • Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Minority Members
The Committee office is located in room SD-410 of the Dirksen Senate Office, Washington, DC 20510
Telephone: (202) 224-8832
Fax: (202) 224-1273

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