Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Water Resources Bill Sails Through the House - Next Stop: Conference Committee

On October 23 the House overwhelmingly passed the "Water Resources Reform and Development Act" (H.R. 3080) on a 417-3 roll call vote.  Known as "WRRDA," the legislation is an $8.2 billion public works bill that authorizes flood control, navigation, and water resource projects, maintenance and studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The bill's passage sets the stage for the likely formation of a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the House WRRDA bill and a companion Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) (or WRDA) bill passed by the Senate in May.
Melvin Price Lock and Dam, Mississippi River
Alton, Illinois
While authorizing 23 navigation, flood protection and ecosystem restoration projects, WRRDA also includes a provision to deauthorize $12 billion worth of the oldest, most-backlogged projects, establishes a procedural mechanism to approve new, future projects, and proposes to reform existing Army Corps of Engineers' procedures, by arguably streamlining the project review process and capping the cost of project studies.

In addition to those sections of the WRRDA bill of a national scope, the House measure, like its Senate counterpart, contains several provisions that directly relate to and would impact projects in the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf Coast waters. Overviews of the two bills, particularly as they relate to those waters, can be seen here (Senate-passed bill) and here (House bill - as passed out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee).

The House bill was sponsored by Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-9- PA) and Committee Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-3-WV), Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chair Bob Gibbs (R-7-OH) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Tim Bishop (D-1-NY). Both Shuster and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee have expressed a desire to form a conference committee and pass a final, reconciled water resources measure before the end of 2013.

As a piece of authorizing legislation, WRRDA does not appropriate funds for the projects and programs it would authorize.  That job would typically fall to the House and Senate Appropriations committees each year.  Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued its estimate of the House bill's cost: $3.5 billion over its first five years and an additional $4.7 billion over the next five years.  That estimate is less than the $12.2 billion ten-year cost that the CBO estimated for the Senate's WRDA bill, but would still require Congress to find  "offsets" to achieve the sought-after budget neutrality when appropriating funds for the various water resources projects.

House Bill Amendments
The House considered a total of 24 amendments to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's bill, approving 17 and rejecting five (two amendments were withdrawn).  Of the 98 amendments filed with the House Rules Committee, only those 24 were ruled in order by the Committee and allowed under its rules to be considered by the House.  Many of the amendments not considered were among the more contentious of those submitted, making for smoother sailing for the bill as a whole on the House floor.

A Mississippi River Basin-related amendment (#18) introduced by Reps. Betty McCollum (D-MN-4), Mike Kelly (R-PA-3), Brad Scheider (D-IL-10) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL-3) that would establish a multi-agency effort to slow the spread of invasive Asian carp in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio river basins was approved on a voice vote as part of an "en bloc" amendment package.  Another invasive species-related amendment (#19), offered by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA-5) and four co-sponsors was approved in that same amendment package.  The Thompson amendment would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct an assessment on the impacts of aquatic invasive species on federal assets and current federal spending on aquatic invasive species prevention.

Language in another amendment would "request" that the Army Corps of Engineers consider the use and economic feasibility of so-called "non-structural alternatives" to the traditional flood mitigation and control techniques (such as levees) when carrying out work after a storm event.   That language, part of a manager's amendment package offered by Shuster and the other three original co-sponsors of the bill (amendment #1), was agreed to on a voice vote.

Both the Senate and House bills contain so-called project "streamlining provisions" that are notably contentious and opposed by many environmental organizations, lawyer groups, and state wetland and floodplain managers.  An amendment to the House bill offered by Democrat Peter DeFazio (OR-4) and four co-sponsors (#2) that would have delayed implementation of those environmental streamlining provisions was not agreed to (roll call vote of 183 "yea" to 286 "nay").

Two amendments (#21 and #22) to evaluate the effectiveness of the Harbor Maintenance Tax and expand the uses of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund were considered and agreed to as part of the en bloc package mentioned above.  The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund provides money for the operation and maintenance of Federal ports and harbors; primarily being used for maintenance dredging, dredged material disposal, and maintenance of jetties and breakwaters.

How the Conferencing Process Works
It is expected that the House and Senate will soon move to form a conference committee, consisting of members from each chamber, tasked to work out the differences between the two versions of the bill (WRDA and WRRDA).  If the committee can resolve the bill differences, it would report an identical measure back to both the House and Senate chambers for a vote. The conferees would also issue a conference report outlining the final version of the bill.

Usually, the conference committee produces the conference report by combining portions of the House and Senate bills into a final version of the bill. The work of the conference committee concludes when a majority of both House and Senate conferees indicate its approval by signing the conference report (the conference report also includes a joint explanatory statement of the conference committee). Once a bill has been passed by a conference committee, it goes directly to the floor of both chambers for an "up or down" vote (i.e., it is not open to amendment). In the first chamber to consider the conference report, a member may move to recommit the bill to the conference committee. However, once the first chamber passes the conference report, the conference committee is dissolved, and the second chamber to act on the bill cannot recommit the bill to conference.

The House and Senate each determine the number of conferees from its particular chamber. The number of conferees does not need be equal from the two chambers.

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