fresh voices from the front lines of change







With the recent government shutdown giving Congress its lowest approval rating in 25 years, this week it appeared many members of the House were scrambling show that when they try, Republicans and Democrats have the ability to work together to pass productive legislation.

Thus, on Wednesday evening, the House passed the the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) virtually unanimously. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and cosponsored by 33 Republicans and 14 Democrats, provides for “improvements to the rivers and harbors of the United States” and “the conservation and development of water and related resources.”

It is the kind of infrastructure bill that Congress should be doing more of, to address our short-term need to create jobs and our critical need to improve our network of waterways in ways that protect the environment and enhance our economic competitiveness.

The American Society of Engineers gave fair to poor grades to the nation’s water resources in its 2013 report card of the country’s public infrastructure. The nation’s 12,000 miles of navigable inland waterways received a “D-” because of outdated locks that contribute to an average of 52 barge shipment delays daily. Dams were graded “D,” with 4,000 of the nation’s xx dams rated as “high-hazard,” half of which are also rated as deficient. Ports fared better, with a “C” grade, but too many are shallow and need dredging.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act would confront many of the very issues that the report addresses. It would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct water projects that include “mitigating storm and hurricane damage, restoring ecosystems, and improving flood management,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. It will provide $8 billion in port, dam, and flood protection projects. The bill would authorize 23 water resource projects that have “completed the technical review by the Corps of Engineers and are recommended by the Chief of Engineers.”

To view official highlights of the bill click here.

The legislation has broad support; only a small group of mostly conservative organizations opposed it. It did raise some red flags among environmentalists because, in their view, it will weaken environmental review requirements that many Republicans blame for holding up projects. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the bill “undercuts environmental safeguards” that have been provided for by the National Environmental Policy Act. “NEPA is the ‘Magna Carta’ of environmental law,” the NRDC said in a statement. “It is unconscionable that the House majority voted to weaken it with this misguided water resources bill.”

Nevertheless, H.R. 3080 was passed with 417 yeas and only 3 nays (Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., and Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn.). “This is how the Congress ought to work with one another, all 435 of us,” said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, (D-Md.). According to Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) who introduced the bill, Congress “worked in a bipartisan way since day one, developing this bill from members, stakeholders, through listening sessions, roundtables and hearings.”

Overall, H.R. 3080 is an example of the kind of congressional cooperation that we need to see more of. Congress can and should do the same thing for our surface transportation networks and other public facilities, to put our citizens to work and improve America’s productivity.

After the passage of the bill in the house, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) said, “I hope this will be a signal of how this committee will bring future pieces of legislation to the floor. And I just hope that it will be a signal to the entire Congress how we should be working closer together in a bipartisan fashion.”

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