Waterways Infrastructure Legislation Offers Rare Bipartisan Victory

January/February 2014

Waterways Infrastructure Legislation Offers Rare Bipartisan Victory

By Arielle Eiser

CapitolThe first year of the 113th Congress was the least productive in our nation’s history. As political paralysis and a continued focus on the federal budget and rollout of the Affordable Care Act dominated the legislative agenda, major legislation idled. Comprehensive immigration reform, a new farm bill, and major tax reform all stalled as Congress remained at a standstill.

However, as 2014 begins there are a few rare, bipartisan exceptions that should give engineers hope. Most notable among these is the current reauthorization effort for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (WRRDA) would be the first authorization for USACE since 2007. WRRDA would streamline the infrastructure project delivery process and strengthen our nation’s water transportation networks.

In May 2013, the Senate’s version of the bill (S. 601), the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 passed by an impressive vote of 83-14. On October 23, the House companion legislation (H.R. 3080), WRRDA, was approved by the House of Representatives by an astounding vote of 417-3.

Once enacted into law, WRRDA will ensure that the Corps can carry out its mission to develop, maintain, and support the nation’s port and waterways infrastructure needs, as well as targeted flood protection and environmental needs. Although both versions modernize and improve the project delivery process, the House version of the legislation is particularly reform-oriented.

WRRDA would overhaul and dramatically improve the process for federal water resources development. The legislation sets hard deadlines on the time and cost of studies, consolidates or eliminates duplicative studies and concurrent reviews that can hold up projects for years, and streamlines environmental reviews. WRRDA fully offsets new authorizations with deauthorizations and cancels $12 billion of inactive projects that were approved prior to the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. This legislation maximizes the ability of nonfederal interests to contribute their own funds to move authorized studies and projects forward. Moreover, it substantially reduces project backlogs.

With passage of the House and Senate bills, the next and final step is a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two bills. President Obama has expressed support for the legislation and indicated that he will sign the conference committee’s final version into law.

The conference committee comprises 32 Senate and House Democrats and Republicans who have worked on the legislation to this point and will be tasked with finding common ground between the two versions. The Senate contingent, led by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), consists of five Democrats and three Republicans. The House contingent, led by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), consists of 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats. The conference committee held its first public meeting on November 20. The meeting was unusually upbeat, with a bipartisan focus on economic benefits, fiscal responsibility, and reform.

However, there are substantial differences between the House and Senate bills that must be addressed before a final law can make its way to the president’s desk. Most significantly, the cost of the Senate bill, at $12.2 billion, is $4 billion above the House’s level of around $8 billion. Moreover, the bills differ on important details such as how to authorize and deauthorize projects, as well as how to revise the use of funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a final version of the authorization in early 2014 is still most likely. The conference principals and committee staff are working very hard behind the scenes to craft an agreement that can gain bipartisan approval in both legislative chambers. After an all too unproductive 2013, this year may begin with a major legislative achievement to benefit the engineering community.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s manager of government relations.

NSPE Endorses Veterans Licensure Legislation

On December 5, NSPE endorsed the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) Enhancement and Improvement Act of 2013. Introduced by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), this legislation (S.1579) would ensure that our nation’s service members are recognized for their invaluable contributions to our nation and for their personal sacrifices.

NSPE particularly commends S.1579 for acknowledging the need to protect the professional licenses of uniformed service members. NSPE strongly supports Section 104 of the legislation, which states that if a professional license issued by a state or local licensing authority to a service member would otherwise lapse during a period in which such service member is eligible for hostile fire or imminent danger special pay, the state licensing authority shall delay the expiration of the license at least 180 days. NSPE further endorses Section 104 of the legislation for applying the 180-day cushion to continuing education requirements.

In a letter of support to Chairman Sanders and Senator Rockefeller, NSPE President Robert Green, P.E., F.NSPE writes, “While NSPE believes strongly that state licensure requirements are vitally important, NSPE also believes that state licensure authorities should show a reasonable level of flexibility toward those defending our nation. NSPE believes the language in S.1579 embodies that level of flexibility.”