Thursday, March 21, 2013

Water Resources Development Act Moves Out of Senate Committee with Ease

Locks and Dam 52 and 53 Replacement Project
Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee used a perfunctory working meeting yesterday (March 20) to unanimously pass its version of the Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) (known as "WRDA"), moving the bill on to the full Senate for anticipated action in late April or May.  The bill, crafted largely through negotiations between Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA), would authorize new flood protection, navigation and ecosystem restoration projects nationwide, while taking steps to reform the Army Corps of Engineers project planning and management processes.  Nine amendments to the bill were added as a block (or en bloc), and included changes related to wetlands conservation, invasive species such as Asian carp and the National Flood Insurance Program   An amendment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to take steps to prevent aquatic nuisance species such as Asian carp from entering and establishing themselves in the Great Lakes. A Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) amendment would require the preparation of a "Wetlands Conservation Study" describing federal wetlands conservation programs, including alternatives for "maximizing wetlands conservation benefits while reducing redundancy, increasing efficiencies, and reducing costs."

In addition to the en bloc amendments, the manager's amendment from the Chairwoman and Ranking Member also included several minor changes to the introduced bill.  A summary posted on the Committee meeting web site states that the manager's amendment:
  • Establishes an independent commission to recommend Corps of Engineers projects for deauthorization
  • Adds additional project modifications
  • Clarifies that port prioritization criteria apply once full expenditure of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is achieved
  • Clarifies the eligibility for projects financed through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act pilot program
  • Makes additional technical changes to the bill
Both the Senate Environment and Public Works, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees have named passage of WRDA as one of their top priorities for 2013. The House T&I Committee has started to hold a series of "listening sessions" to gather input on what stakeholders want to see in WRDA, and feedback from committee staff had indicated that the bill might include language that would "streamline" the National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Impact Statement (NEPA EIS) process.  Such language was, in fact, included in the Senate bill.

The issue of a Congressional block on earmarks may be an impediment to gaining House consensus on the bill, or even of crafting a House T&I Committee WRDA bill that is closely compatible with the version that the Senate Committee just passed. 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. Sen. Boxer has consistently stressed the point that the Senate's bill would successfully address the issue of Congressional earmark restrictions. House T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster has said that he can't see WRDA being easily crafted with the Congressional block on earmarks in place.

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