Biennial (and Bipartisan) Water Resources Bill Approved by House Panel

Biennial (and Bipartisan) Water Resources Bill Approved by House Panel

July 17, 2020  | Jeff Davis

Weeks after the panel muscled a partisan surface transportation bill through the markup process, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a much different markup on July 15 to approve a bipartisan water resources bill by voice vote.

H.R. 7575, the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, was introduced on July 13 by the chairman and ranking minority member of the T&I panel, Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Sam Graves (R-MO), and the chair and RMM of the Water subcommittee, Grace Napolitano (D-CA) and Bruce Westerman (R-AR).

Because the water bill was generated on a bipartisan basis from start to finish, the markup of the bill went much more smoothly. Each member of the aforementioned “Big Four” T&I legislators on water issues had to consent to any proposed amendment, or all four would oppose the amendment. As a result, there was only one time-consuming roll call vote in the entire markup – everything else was dealt with by voice vote or (in most instances) a member offered their amendment, made their point briefly, then withdrew the amendment because they knew it was not acceptable to at least one of the Big Four. (The surface transportation markup had 21 roll call votes.)

The only amendments adopted were:

Everything else was either withdrawn or allowed to fail gently by voice vote, with the exception of a Perry (R-PA) amendment that shows what happens when the Big Four strongly oppose your amendment. Perry’s amendment would have stricken the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund appropriations exclusion enacted four months ago in the CARES Act – and because chairman DeFazio’s provision allowing the complete spend-down of the $9+ billion in unobligated balances in the Trust Fund (contained in both the WRDA bill and in the larger infrastructure bill) is an amendment to the CARES language, it would also have prevented the DeFazio provision from taking effect. Perry was only able to get one other member (Scott Massie, R-KY) to vote with him. The roll call vote was 2 yeas, 62 nays, and the amendment was defeated.

A list of other amendments offered, but not adopted, is here.

The bill now goes to the House floor. Usually, a bipartisan bill that passes out of a big committee unanimously can be considered by the House under “suspension of the rules,” which prohibits floor amendments. However, rule 38 of the House Democratic Caucus rules says that the Speaker must not allow bills under suspension if the bill makes or authorizes appropriations of more than $100 million per year, and the Corps budget is far above that. (But the rule allows the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee to waive that rule and let the Speaker consider such requests, so we may still see the bill move via that route instead of the much more time-consuming Rules Committee process.)

The water resources bills have always been about projects. Sure, policy and program are important and are amply addressed in each biennial bill, but it’s the authorizations for specific water projects that have always given the bill its mojo. Under current practice, this is more complicated than it used to be.

First, the Corps has to submit a report to Congress from the Chief of Engineers (a “Chief’s report” – see the list of all of them here) outlining project parameters and costs, certifying that the environmental paperwork is complete, and recommending the project move forward. (The current Chief, Lt.Gen. Todd Semonite, has taken to hand-writing little endorsements next to his signature on the reports, like this one for the Port of Houston Ship Channel – “Phenomenal project for the nation – significant nexus with the nation’s trade, energy, and defense accounts!!”)

Congress’s self-imposed earmark ban, now celebrating its tenth year, means that Congress cannot authorize or fund specific new projects on its own – the Corps has to submit a chief’s report first. This has had a notable effect on the timing of WRDA bills moving through the legislative process – if you move a bill too soon, before a Chief’s report on a big project comes in, funding for that project might have to wait two more years until the next WRDA bill. (A few cycles ago, the conference on the WRDA bill went on for what seemed like forever – it started in late November 2013 and the conference report was not filed until mid-May of the following year. Not coincidentally, the Chief’s reports for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) project in Truckee, NV, and a big project in Jacksonville, FL for high-ranking T&I member Corinne Brown (D-FL), did not come in until mid-April 2014.)

In this case, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee moved its WRDA bill (S. 3591) on May 11 of this year, just after the big Chief’s reports for the aforementioned Houston ship channel expansion, the Corpus Christi ship channel, and the latest Everglades megaproject, and smaller Chief’s reports for a couple of projects in New Jersey came through in late April and early May.

And the House bill was introduced on July 13, just four days after the Chief’s report for the $3 billion Fire Island, NY project, the $1.2 billion Westminster, CA project, and two smaller projects were submitted on July 9. Coincidence? We think not.

The project list is shown below, in millions of dollars of total project cost (federal and non-federal). For the federal versus non-federal breakdown, see section 401 of H.R. 7575.

Projects Authorized in the House WRDA Bill (HR. 7575)
Total In Senate
Cost Bill?
(1) Navigation
AK Port of Nome Modifications 490.19 No
AK Unalaska Channels 34.94 Yes
CT New Haven Harbor 72.31 No
NY/NJ Harbor Anchorages 25.25 Yes
TX Gulf Intracoastal Waterway 409.78 Yes
TX Houston Ship Channel 876.85 No
TX Matagorda Ship Channel 218.32 Yes
(2) Flood Risk Management
AZ Little Colorado River 80.71 Yes
CA Westminster, E. Garden Grove 1,224.60 No
CT/NY Fairfield & Westchester Cos. 29.41 No
ND Souris River Basin 89.30 Yes
NJ Peckman River Basin 146.19 Yes
NM Middle Rio Grande 293.14 Yes
OK Tulsa and West Tulsa Levees 133.51 Yes
(3) Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction
DE Delaware River Dredged Material 314.64 Yes
NJ Delaware River Dredged Material 288.56 Yes
NJ Rahway River Basin 71.93 No
NY E. Rockaway Inlet 569.29 No
NY Hashamomuck Cove 64.73 Yes
RI Pawcatuck River 58.23 Yes
VA Norfolk Coastal 1,398.52 Yes
(4) Flood Risk Management and Ecosystem Restoration
CO South Platte River and Tributaries 534.82 Yes
NY Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Pt. 3,027.83 No
(5) Ecosystem Restoration
CA Delta Islands and Levees 25.76 Yes
CA Yuba River Ecosystem 100.00 Yes
FL Comprehensive Everglades Plan 740.76 Yes
IL Great Lakes/Miss. River Interbasin 863.30 Yes
IL Chicago River South Fork 17.93 No
MD Anacostia Watershed 35.65 Yes
MO St. Louis Riverfront 92.50 Yes
NM Rio Grande Restoration 24.87 Yes
NY-NJ Hudson-Raritan Estuary 408.18 No
TX Jefferson County 57.87 Yes
(6) Water Supply
OR Willamette Basin Review 0.00 No
(7) Modifications and Other Projects
KY Kentucky Lock 1.15 No
NC Carolina Beach Renourishment 48.41 No
NC Wrightsville Beach 105.22 No
TX Corpus Christi Ship Channel 676.01 Yes
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