Washington Waves: May 14, 2018

Washington, D.C.—A key Senate committee kicked off its work on a water infrastructure bill that would maintain navigability of inland waterways across the country and deepen nationally significant ports.

“Goods and raw materials need to move from the heartland to the coasts for export,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and lead sponsor of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act.

“The bill is designed to maintain these vital arteries of commerce.”

Barrasso said the bill also will create an addition to the benefit-cost-ratio framework that will give state and local officials a greater role in prioritizing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects.

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He chaired a committee hearing that generated support for the bill from a handful of witnesses.

Introduced with bipartisan support on the committee, the bill was embraced as a way to keep Congress on its two-year schedule for passing a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

Barrasso said discussions on the bill’s language continue, and a bipartisan manager’s version is expected to be introduced later this month to cover a number of issues.

Corps Appropriations

A House subcommittee advanced a major appropriations bill to boost funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and repeal the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.

By a voice vote, the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies spending bill now goes to the full House Appropriations Committee.

Republicans clearly have the votes to push the bill through both the full committee and the House, but provisions viewed as poison pill riders by Democrats, such as the language to kill the WOTUS rule, no doubt would generate stout opposition in the Senate, where a supermajority vote of 60 votes usually is necessary to secure passage.

Republicans control the Senate by a razor-thin 51–49 margin.

“Once again, the majority has included controversial and harmful policy riders that make this bill harder to pass in a bipartisan manner,” warned Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the full committee.

Last year, a provision authorizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps to withdraw the controversial WOTUS rule was included in the bill before the entire appropriations process stalled later.

Provisions expected to attract bipartisan support would increase funding for the Corps to $7.28 billion, an increase of $451 million above fiscal year 2018, with $1.6 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and full use of estimated annual revenues from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

An official with the American Association of Port Authorities welcomed the “record funding” for the Corps, describing it as proof that Congress understands the link between ports, federal navigation channels and economic growth.

Corps Listening Sessions

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held two days of listening sessions to hear from stakeholders on how the agency can better deliver critical infrastructure projects.

According to the Corps, the first day focused on issues related to water resources while the second day took up permitting practices consistent with the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to speed up projects.

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James spoke of the administration’s One Federal Decision Memorandum of Understanding to advance the nation’s infrastructure by requiring federal agencies to work together and make faster decisions.

“Quit getting all wrapped up in the process,” James said.

“Do what’s in the law and get to the result.”

An agency spokesman said a list of the 37 participants was not available because they attended the sessions under an agreement of non-attribution.

He said the organizations represented a wide range of interests, including ports, waterways, and dam and levee safety.

Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., said while a wide variety of opinions emerged on project financing, he heard a consensus that changing the cost sharing to 20 percent federal and 80 percent non-federal would be too great a burden for state and local interests.

Infrastructure Package

The White House acknowledged that chances of a major infrastructure package, one of President Trump’s campaign goals, continue to dim, at least for 2018.

“I don’t know that there will be one by the end of this year,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.

“We’re going to continue to look at ways to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I’m not aware that that will happen by the end of the year.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) blamed the administration’s failure to deliver its long-promised trillion-dollar infrastructure package on the president’s decision to take a partisan route on major issues instead of taking Democrats up on their offer to work on a bipartisan infrastructure plan.

Schumer said the administration’s “Infrastructure Week” was nothing more than a “toothless PR stunt.”

Ballast Water Reports

Vessels operating exclusively between ports or places within a single Captain of the Port Zone would no longer be required to submit an Annual Ballast Water Summary Report, under a proposal unveiled by the Coast Guard.

In its Federal Register notice, the Coast Guard described the current reporting requirement as unnecessary to analyze and understand ballast water management practices.

“This proposal would also serve to reduce the administrative burden on the regulated population of vessels which are equipped with ballast tanks,” the notice stated.

“We have reviewed the 2016 annual reports and have concluded that they do not contribute to the quality and breadth of BWM data as originally intended.”

Comments on the proposed rulemaking must be received by the Coast Guard by June 8.

For additional information, contact John Morris at 202-372-1402.