Washington Waves
Washington Waves

Disaster Relief Bill Signed Into Law

Washington, D.C.—After months of delay, a $19.1 billion bill that includes billions of dollars for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to respond to recent historic floods—some of which are still wreaking havoc in parts of the country—and to help prevent future flooding easily won final congressional approval from the U.S. House of Representatives.

That bipartisan 354-58 vote sent H.R. 2157 to President Donald Trump, who signed it into law June 6.

Funding to repair damage to Corps projects totaled $2.483 billion, with $575 million of that for Mississippi River and Tributaries; $908 million for operations and maintenance; and $1 billion for flood control and coastal emergencies.

Another $740 million was provided to speed up construction of flood and storm damage reduction projects, with up to $25 million for continuing authorities’ projects to reduce the risk of flooding and storm damage.

A $35 million provision calls for a study of potential projects to reduce risk from future floods and hurricanes.

Other agencies also would receive funds to deal with 2017, 2018 and 2019 natural disasters ranging from hurricanes and wildfires to volcanic activities.

A partisan disagreement largely over how much additional aid should go to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico had delayed the disaster relief bill for months, and after that impasse was broken, a bid by House Democratic leaders to fast-track the bill to Trump by unanimous consent during the recent week-long Memorial Day break was blocked three times by Republicans over concerns that such a costly bill should require a recorded vote by the full House.

Mexico Tariffs

President Trump sounded more than ready for the first of a series of U.S. tariffs on products coming into the U.S. from Mexico to kick in Monday even as his strongest supporters in Congress hold out hope that will not happen.

“Progress is being made, but not nearly enough!” Trump tweeted Wednesday after the first day of high-level meetings failed to produce an agreement that included action by Mexico to stem the flow of immigrants entering the U.S.

He used that tweet to blame Mexico as well as Democrats in Congress for border arrests hitting the 133,000 mark in May.

Pushback on Trump’s trade strategy, however, also came from a number of Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

“Well, there’s not much support for tariffs in my conference. That’s for sure,” McConnell told reporters after he and other Senate Republicans met privately with representatives from the White House on the issue.

He made it clear most of the Republican senators were placing their hopes on successful negotiations.

“Our hope is that the tariffs will be avoided,” McConnell said.

 He also took care to avoid answering questions about hypothetical responses in Congress should the first round of tariffs kick in.

While still in London, Trump dismissed talk that Republicans would join an effort in Congress to stop him from imposing the tariffs on products coming in from Mexico.

“I don’t think they will do that. I think if they do, it’s foolish. There’s nothing more important than borders,” he said.

Transportation Funding

Just hours after a bill with funding for maritime programs advanced in the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) again expressed optimism on reaching a two-year budget agreement that could keep the fiscal year 2020 appropriations cycle on track and avoid a government shutdown and massive spending cuts later this year.

“I still believe that a spending caps deal is to everybody’s advantage, everybody, the president, the Senate, the House, both parties. We expect those talks to resume,” McConnell told reporters.

“I remain optimistic.”

Earlier that same day, the House Appropriations Committee voted 29 to 21 to send a $137.1 billion Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies spending bill to the House floor.

Provisions being tracked by the waterways industry include $1 billion for BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grants, and $1.1 billion for the Maritime Administration, a $63 million cut from last year’s enacted amount. Included in the MarAd total is $300 million for the Maritime Security Program; $225 million for the Port Infrastructure Development Program, a $68 million reduction from the 2019 enacted amount; and $300 million for school ship construction.

As the fiscal year 2020 appropriations process continues, key House Republicans continue to warn that spending bills advanced by the Democratic majority include unrealistic funding figures that are not backed up by a bipartisan top-level budget agreement.

The House Appropriations Committee released a division-by-division summary of the first “minibus” of fiscal year 2020 spending bills.

Expected to be taken up Wednesday, H.R. 2740 includes funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as the Legislative Branch; Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; and the State Department and other international programs.

FMC Nomination

President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Carl Whitney Bentzel of Maryland to the Federal Maritime Commission. Currently providing consulting services on energy and transportation issues at Bentzel Strategies, Bentzel is expected to be nominated to fill the remainder of a five-year term expiring June 30 as well as a five-year term expiring June 30, 2024.

Previously he served as vice president at the DCI Group and senior counsel on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, where he worked on issues related to surface and maritime transportation.

Bentzel is a recipient of the United States Coast Guard’s Medal for Meritorious Public Service. He received his B.A. from St. Lawrence University, J.D. from University of Alabama School of Law, and L.L.M. in Admiralty Law from Tulane University.

MTSNAC Meeting Set

The Maritime Administration announced a two-day meeting June 18-19 of the U.S. Maritime Transportation System National Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C.

Open to the public, the meetings will begin at 9 a.m. on both days at the DOT Conference Center, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20590.

For additional information, contact Amanda Rutherford at 202-366-1332.