Washington Waves: July 23, 2018

Washington, D.C.—A member of the Trump administration told key senators the “top-down” proposal to transfer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out of the Defense Department had varied roots, including concerns its civil works program could be neglected because of the Army’s bigger mission of fighting wars.

“For our rivers and inland waterways, there are multiple agencies involved in all of the mission areas, and they are diverse mission areas,” said Margaret Weichert, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and, so far, the face of the administration’s sweeping effort to reorganize the federal government.

“There is a lot of overlap and, more importantly, there is a lot of fragmentation that creates challenges when people are trying to make a decision or actually get something done.”

Singling out flood control as one of the program’s important missions, Weichert said the administration wants to improve management, streamline that process and avoid conflicting decisions in that area.

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She said the Interior and Transportation departments, which would receive Corps functions under the plan, already perform a great deal of work in those same areas.

When asked whether the plan calls for a civilian workforce to take over the missions from uniformed military officers, Weichert conceded the administration needed more time to work out those details. 

“I think one of the things we all acknowledge is that the leadership development discipline that the Army has brought to the Army Corps of Engineers is one of the things that is exceedingly good about the Corps,” she said.

To a question about whether the administration believed it could take on such a massive change without congressional action, Weichert said:

“Absolutely not. No, this is one that would require congressional involvement.”

Weichert was not prepared to clarify which of the other proposals would require congressional action and which the administration could implement on its own.

Focusing many of their comments on a proposal on postal privatization, Democrats repeatedly warned that not becoming more forthcoming with information would doom the entire effort.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, took a middle-of-the-road approach, reminding Democrats the panel’s hearing was just the beginning of the reorganization effort but joining them in telling Weichert he also would need certain information to move forward.

BUILD Grants And Ports

Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, testified before the Senate Finance Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness on the infrastructure needs of the nation’s seaports.

Nagle recommended that senators adopt the House Appropriations Committee’s provision to mandate that one-third of the so-called BUILD grants for fiscal year 2019 be allocated to ports and AAPA’s proposal to raise the multimodal caps on FAST Act programs and full use of the Harbor Maintenance Tax.

He also shared AAPA’s concerns about potential trade sanctions that could trigger job losses in the seaport industry.

“Seaports are at the front lines of the current uncertainties surrounding U.S. trade policy,” Nagle said.

WOTUS Repeal Comment Period

A 30-day clock for public comments on a supplemental notice in the year-long effort to repeal the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule began with a July 12 publication of the latest notice in the Federal Register.

Comments on the supplemental notice must be received by August 13.

Responding to feedback from the public to their 2017 notice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army issued the supplemental notice to clear up possible confusion and clarify their goal is to repeal the WOTUS rule permanently and restore the regulations that existed before the 2015 rule.

Apparently some who had commented on the initial notice thought they were restricted from either supporting or opposing repeal.

“We invite all interested parties to comment on whether the 2015 rule should be repealed,” the latest notice stated.

 For additional information, contact Michael McDavit at 202-566-2428.

Jones Act Study

Supporters of the Jones Act welcomed a study that found the decades-old law had no impact on retail prices or the cost of living in Puerto Rico and did not prevent foreign-flag ships from calling on the storm-ravaged island.

“Today’s findings confirm what many of us already knew—the Jones Act did not negatively affect Puerto Rico’s ability to receive aid from around the world in the wake of last year’s hurricanes,” said Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“Jones Act carriers played a critical role in relief and recovery operations during Hurricane Maria, and there is no evidence to support the claim that the Jones Act was to blame for the serious shortcomings of the federal emergency response effort.

DeFazio, who was joined in issuing the press release by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said it was imperative the Jones Act is supported to ensure a vibrant coastwise fleet to provide reliable transportation between U.S. destinations as well as assistance in future disasters.

Completed by economists from Reeves & Associates and Estudios Tecnicos Inc., the study was issued by the American Maritime Partnership.

Infrastructure Challenges

As if President Trump’s $1.5-trillion infrastructure vision did not face enough challenges, a prominent economist told a key Senate committee the idea that state and local governments could partner with private investors to generate that kind of investment was “extremely optimistic.”

“To get the private sector involved, you have to have some cash on the table for them,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin said.

“At least in my judgment, it didn’t look like there would be sufficient opportunities to do that.”

Currently the president of the center-right American Action Forum, Holtz-Eakin previously served as the chief economist of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush and director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

He testified during the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s hearing on the long-term value of low-cost federal infrastructure loans such as those offered by the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan program.

Maritime Regulations

A federal agency has extended until August 30 a comment period on how U.S. maritime regulations can be modified or even repealed to boost efficiency, reduce regulatory burdens or simplify compliance while meeting statutory missions.

Issued by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget, the request for information initially included a July 16 deadline for comments.

It follows executive orders issued by President Trump just days after he took office to reduce and reform federal regulations.

OIRA expressed particular interest in receiving comments on regulations involving cargo and passenger vessels.

“Please note, OIRA intends to make all submissions publicly available,” the notice stated.