WJ Editorial

Will New Congress Distract Itself Or Get Things Done?

In last week’s midterm elections, the Democrats were expected to win the House of Representatives and they did, but not by the margins they would have preferred. The Republicans increased their majority in the Senate by at least two seats.

What does Democratic control of the House mean for maritime and inland waterways issues specifically? One thing won’t change: new members of Congress only rarely come into office with detailed knowledge of maritime issues. Educating them is a primary job of our advocacy organizations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose party increased its majority in the Senate to at least 53 seats, once said that “divided government is the perfect time to do big things.” As examples, he gave Social Security reform in 1983, the 1986 Tax Reform Act, and the 1996 welfare reform program. McConnell said, “None of those things in my view would have occurred in unified government.”

The recurring problem in Washington with maritime issues, and brown-water issues in particular has always been low visibility rather than partisan hostility. The maritime and inland waterways communities have always had friends on both sides of the aisle, and opponents of waterways interests can emerge in either party.

Infrastructure bills like the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) have repeatedly shown they can garner impressive bipartisan support. In times of divided government, such bills are important ways that members of both parties can show their constituents and the nation that they can get things done. It was under the Obama administration that an important WRDA was passed after a seven-year hiatus, and that WRDAs were put back on a two-year schedule.

Republicans can expect some pushback from House leaders on issues relevant to waterways interests, such as the Trump administration’s effort to kill the “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule, whose fate is now in the courts, and on the EPA’s rollback of environmental regulations. On waterways issues, some important committee members of both parties are independent leaders who get things done and who have helped deliver WRDAs in the past.

One important question now is how many Democrats want to use their control of the House to work with Senate Republicans to get things done, or whether they seek only to prepare for the next round of elections in 2020.

This midterm elections saw unprecedented levels of both campaign spending and voter turnout. If the legislative schedule holds, the next WRDA is due by 2020, an election year that promises to be even more intense than this one. We hope cool heads will prevail and that members of Congress will follow McConnell’s advice about “getting big things done.”

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