The House of Representatives passed H.R. 3080 – the Water Resources Reform and Development (WRRDA) Act – nearly unanimously on Wednesday October 23. The final vote was 417 for and three against the measure.
The overwhelmingly bipartisan support for the bill is a victory for waterways advocate organizations and stakeholders such as the Dredging Contractors of America (DCA) The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Coalitions’s Realize America’s Maritime Promise (RAMP) and the National Waterways Conference (NWC) among many others who have worked for decades to familiarize lawmakers with the importance of water transportation and water resources. Especially since passage of the last WRDA in 2007 these groups have made WRRDA – widely referred to as “werda” – a “household word” in Washington D.C. to the extent that most if not all members of Congress are fully aware of the importance of water resources especially navigation to the U.S. economy. This situation did not exist even six years ago when the last WRDA was passed.
The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Coalition and RAMP were established in 2008 and worked for legislation that would require spending the HMTF on maintaining waterways and language requiring that was included in the bills introduced by both houses of Congress.
The House bill H.R. 3080 adds an extra “r” – for “reform.” The bill House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said “cuts red tape and bureaucracy and creates a new transparent review process for future projects with strong Congressional oversight. It reforms the way our government does business” he said.
Possibly the most important item for navigation is language that requires that an increasing annual percentage of the $1.8 billion collected annually through the Harbor Maintenance Tax be used for operation and maintenance activities capping at 80 percent in 2040.
In addition “in years when target expenditures from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) are met five percent may be used on specific other uses such as dredging of berths and dredging and disposal of contaminated sediments affecting a federal navigation channel. This allows naturally deep ports without major dredging needs to benefit from expanded use opportunities” according to a pamphlet on the bill from the T&I committee.
On September 13 2013 Barry Holliday chairman of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Fairness Coalition sent a letter to T&I committee members praising them for their “outstanding leadership and extraordinary coordination with all stakeholders in the preparation of WRRDA.” He especially acknowledged the inclusion of HMTF language which will ensure that the funds will be used for their intended purpose – harbor maintenance.
The public backlash against earmarks resulting from a number of abuses of the practice was acknowledged in WRRDA 2013 which contains no earmarks. However the bill authorizes a list of priority water resources infrastructure improvements recommended by the Chief of Engineers. These include navigation flood control hurricane and storm damage and environmental restoration projects.
Other items in the bill under the “reform” heading include the de-authorization of $12 billion of outdated projects to offset newly-authorized Corps activities and cutting red tape by adopting the Corps of Engineers’ 3+3+3 policy which puts a cap of three years on project studies along with a $3 million allowance for the study and three levels of review. As part of this policy duplicate studies will be consolidated and the reviews will be conducted concurrently. It sunsets new authorizations to prevent future project backlogs and requires the identification of properties not needed for the Corps mission and opportunity for non-federal interests to take over those properties.
The bill also expands the ability of nonfederal interests to contribute funds to expedite the evaluation and processing of permits and to contribute their own funds. The bill establishes a Water Infrastructure Public Private Partnership Program to help local entities move their projects forward.
The bill was scheduled to be debated on both Wednesday and Thursday October 23 and 24. However the House cancelled business on Thursday to allow members to attend the funeral of Rep. Bill Young of Florida who had died the previous Friday leaving less than a day to debate and vote on the bill.
The first order of business was to debate and vote on House Resolution 385 which defined the procedure for the bill and identified the 24 amendments to be debated – 10 Republican 10 Democratic and four bi-partisan each with a strictly observed time limit on debate. Discussion on the rule was about one hour and it passed easily.
Discussion on the amendments began at about 2:30 p.m. and the vote was held at 6:25 p.m. EDT. Totals were: yeas 417 – 224 Republicans and 193 Democrats; nays three – two Republicans and one Democrat; and non-voting 11 – five Republicans and six Democrats.
The bill now goes to conference with the Senate who’s Water Resources Development Act of 2013 – S. 601 – was passed in May by a vote of 83 to 14. Though there are a number of differences in the two bills both houses of Congress have stated that they are committed to passing a bill by the end of this session and the conference bill is expected to be introduced quickly.
Thanks to Barry Holliday for forwarding all WRDA and WRRDA-related materials to IDR during the 113th Congress.