Washington Waves

Washington Waves: December 11, 2017

Washington, D.C.—A Republican-led effort to deliver a sweeping tax bill to President Trump’s desk entered a crucial phase as lawmakers prepared to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions in conference.

“I know everyone is ready to finalize our tax reform legislation and send it to the president so he can sign it into law,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said as he announced the Senate Republican members of the conference committee.

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the Jack Kemp Leadership Award Dinner, predicted Republicans will meet their self-imposed deadline for passing the historic bill by Christmas.

Key issues expected to be taken up in conference range from the alternative minimum tax and itemized deductions to the prohibition on religious groups and other tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political activity.

As it did while the two versions were moving toward floor votes, the American Association of Port Authorities continued to express concern over specific provisions that would curtail tax support for important investments in seaports and other infrastructure projects.

“While we applaud the intentions of Congress and the administration to simplify our complicated and oftentimes burdensome tax structure and incentivize investments into our economy, a number of tax changes in both versions of the legislation run counter to those intentions,” AAPA President and CEO Kurt Nagle said.

AAPA again singled out provisions in the House bill that would eliminate tax-exempt status for Private Activity Bonds and repeal the tax exemption for advanced refunding of bonds, which is also in the Senate version.

“Approximately 27 percent of the $451 billion in long-term, tax-exempt U.S. municipal bonds were advance refunded in 2016 to take advantage of lower rates,” AAPA explained.

WOTUS Still In Spotlight

These days the contentious Obama-era regulation on defining the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) never leaves the spotlight for long.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, R.D. James, President Trump’s nominee to serve as assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, was pressed about WOTUS by Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) specifically whether James would use “common sense” when interpreting federal laws.

 “Absolutely,” James replied. “As long as it’s the law, I’ll follow it.”

Both Barrasso and Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the committee’s top Democrat, mentioned the role James will play in the nation’s waterways.

In his testimony, James described himself as “a farmer, a business man, a civil engineer, and for the past 36 years a presidential appointee to the Mississippi River Commission.”

Also, a provision inserted in appropriations bills earlier this year that seemed to authorize the EPA and the Corps of Engineers to move ahead with actions already underway against WOTUS drew renewed interest when the Washington Post reported the language also was designed to thwart legal challenges under the Administrative Procedures Act.

When asked about that angle, Stephen Worley, a spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said by email: “WOTUS repeal is a longstanding priority of Republicans in the House and Senate, and this provision would allow for the administration to rewrite this flawed rule without unnecessary delay.”

 Response from an EPA spokesperson: “EPA did not request the language in the bill.”

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt used a recent visit to Kentucky to discuss efforts to rescind WOTUS and other environmental issues with the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation and to meet with Gov. Matt Bevin.

“Farmers and ranchers are some of the nation’s first environmentalists,” Pruitt said in a press statement.

“We should be working with them, as partners, to conserve our natural resources, while continuing to support and grow our local economies.”

Marine Highway Program

In a final rule that becomes effective on January 2, 2018, the Maritime Administration (MarAd) is amending its America’s Marine Highway Program regulations to expand the program’s purpose to promote short sea transportation and streamline the regulation to highlight procedures and resources available to participants.

It explained the changes to the program, originally authorized to relieve congestion on the nation’s roads and railways, conforms to statutory changes.

Estimates from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicate that congestion on roads, bridges, railways and in ports costs the nation as much as $200 billion annually and cargoes moving through ports will nearly double over the next 15 years.

For additional information, contact Tim Pickering at 202-366-0704.

Vessel Designations

MarAd also invites public comment on its plan to seek approval from the Office of Management and Budget to renew information collection that will be used to create a list of Vessel Self-Designations and determine whether the agency agrees or disagrees with that designation for purposes of compliance with the Cargo Preference Act.

“It will use data submitted with redesignation requests to determine whether or not a vessel should be redesignated into a different service category,” MarAd stated in its Federal Register posting.

Comments must be submitted before February 5, 2018.

For additional information, contact Jan Downing at 202-366-0783.

Homeland Security Secretary

Kirstjen Nielsen was sworn in December 6 as the sixth Homeland Security secretary after winning Senate confirmation by a vote of 62 to 37.

As the head of DHS, Nielsen has authority over the U.S. Coast Guard and will be in charge of waterways security.

Nielsen is the first former DHS employee to take its top post.

She first worked at the agency during the George W. Bush administration and again earlier in the Trump administration before moving to the White House to serve as deputy chief of staff.

Elaine Duke, who has served as acting Homeland Security secretary and was in that post during the recent waivers of the Jones Act, will remain at the agency as Nielsen’s deputy.

Cell Phone Technology Research

The Coast Guard announced plans to enter into an agreement with TriaSys Technologies Corporation to investigate the potential operational use of cellular phone direction finding technology. The intent to enter the potential Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, which is not a procurement contract, is based on market research into the unique application of technology in the maritime environment for search and rescue.  The Coast Guard is soliciting public comment on possible participation from other parties.

The deadline is January 2, 2018.

For additional information, contact Donald Decker at 860-271-2701.

Great Lakes Invasive Species

EPA announced five Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants totaling roughly $2.7 million to control invasive species in Wisconsin.

“Invasive species are a serious problem facing the Great Lakes,” Pruitt said in a statement that referenced how they have impacted the Great Lakes ecosystem and other fresh water lakes in Wisconsin over the past two centuries.

“These grants will assist local partners in restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem while improving economies and preventing future damage to the environment.”

Grant recipients include the Wisconsin Tribal Conservation Advisory Council, $393,750; the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, $598,673; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, $551,669; Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium, Inc., $600,000; and Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission, $599,977.

Pacific Seacoast Navigation

The Guard is seeking input from mariners for a study of navigation requirements in the Pacific Seacoast System.

According to the agency’s announcement, the Waterways Analysis and Management System (WAMS) study will review the short range Aids to Navigation (ATON) system, which covers American waterways between the Canadian and Mexican borders and around Alaska, Hawaii and the Marianas Islands.

“This WAMS study will help us to tailor our Aids to Navigation levels of service to better meet the needs of mariners across the Pacific Seacoast System,” said Cmdr. Justin Kimura, the chief of the Navigation Technology and Risk Management Division in the Office of Navigation Systems.

The ATON system is designed to help mariners determine their positions, chart a safe course and avoid hazards.

NVOCC Amendments

With a goal of modernizing and reducing regulatory burdens, the Federal Maritime Commission proposes to amend rules on Non-Vessel-Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC) Negotiated Rate Arrangements (NRAs) and NVOCC Service Arrangements.

Comments must be submitted by January 29, 2018.

According to its Federal Register posting, the commission proposes removing the NSA filing and publication requirements and permitting NRAs to be modified at any time.

“In addition, an NVOCC may provide for the shipper’s acceptance of the NRA by booking a shipment thereunder, subject to the NVOCC incorporating a prominent written notice to such effect in each NRA or amendment,” the posting stated.