The first big test of whether Congress can function, post-shutdown, could come today or Thursday, when the House is expected to take up the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013. The bill has bipartisan support and the House should approve it, having not passed an omnibus bill to authorize water and flood control projects since 2007.
This bill is far from perfect. Taxpayer groups say it perpetuates wasteful spending on unneeded projects, and fails to reform the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a meaningful way. Environmental groups say the bill is laden with projects that could harm wetlands, rivers and other waterways. Conservative groups, on the other hand, say it doesn’t go far enough in streamlining environmental regulations that delay and drive up the cost of infrastructure.
The haggling will continue right up until the House votes, and if approved, the bill will have to be reconciled with an already passed Senate version. So there is still a chance for the more objectionable parts of the House bill to be fixed in conference committee.
Despite its flaws, the nation cannot afford another delay in this water resources bill, for at least two reasons:
• Congress needs to demonstrate, following the destructive shutdown of the federal government and impasse over the debt limit, that it can act in bipartisan fashion to move the nation forward.
• The failure of Congress to act on an authorization bill for six years has held back needed public works projects, including those that protect communities from dangerous flooding.
Sacramento is one of these communities. The water resources bill includes authorization for the Natomas Levee Improvement Program (NLIP), a crucial first step in obtaining federal funding for remaining flood-control work in this portion of Sacramento. Hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local funds have been used to upgrade the most vulnerable stretches of levee in Natomas. But Congress has yet to authorize its portion of the federal cost-share for this program, aimed at protecting 100,000 residents in Natomas and billions of dollars in property.
Back in 2008, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency hoped it could complete all Natomas levee upgrades by 2012, providing the area with 200-year flood protection. But delays in congressional authorization – largely because of the House – have pushed that timeline back by several years. All that time, Natomas has been subject to a federal building moratorium, which will be lifted only when Congress authorizes the NLIP.
A House ban on earmarks has been the biggest hurdle. Credit goes to U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui and California Sen. Barbara Boxer for working out a way to authorize the Natomas work without conflicting with that ban.
The politics of this vote will be entertaining to watch. Undoubtedly, some House Republicans will attempt to hold up the water resource bill, seeking fewer authorizations and more gutting of environmental projections. Yet East Coast and gulf state representatives with ports in their districts will be under pressure to approve it. The widening of the Panama Canal – allowing it to take larger ships – has put pressure on U.S. ports to deepen channels to serve these big cargo vessels. Demands of commerce will compete against ideological purity. Given the tea party’s record of success in Congress, we have a pretty good idea of who will be the victor here.