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Cost, Fine Print Slow WRDA Bill

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staffers scrambled last week to re-draft the Water Resources Development Act reauthorization bill after the Congressional Budget Office estimated its price tag at a whopping $31.5 billion, more than double the cost of the House-passed version.

The bill may come to the Senate floor as early as tonight, but as of Friday afternoon the committee had not yet released the substitute bill that staffers said likely will cut the cost by more than half.

Further complicating matters, government openness advocates criticized the panel for the way earmark disclosure was handled in the committee print, a problem that staffers said would be fixed in the substitute bill.

EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) initially suggested that they would not apply new earmark disclosure practices because the bill establishing those procedures has not yet been signed into law. They later reversed field and announced that they would disclose who had asked for each project in the bill.

But the way the bill was printed, the earmark disclosure table is printed in tiny type, and it is reproduced as a single image, making a computerized search impossible. Committee sources said the printing snafu was unintentional, having more to do with the way the Government Printing Office reproduced the legislation than the way the committee intended it to be presented. That, too, will be resolved, they said, when the substitute bill is revealed.

But that also means that the Senate may begin floor debate on the bill only hours after the full earmark disclosure list has been made public.

The primary cost driver in the bill is a provision that authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to build hurricane protection projects in Louisiana. Under the way the provision was worded in the committee report that was released at the end of the week, these projects could be authorized upon a resolution approved by the EPW and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, without a vote in the floor of either chamber.

The CBO estimated that provision alone would cost “at least $15 billion during the decade following 2012, and perhaps much more.”

Before the Senate votes on the bill, the bipartisan committee leadership will introduce a substitute that will change the language to address the CBO’s cost concerns and get the Senate bill more in line with the $13.2 billion range that the CBO estimated for the House bill. But staffers would not disclose how that language will be changed.

The substitute bill also will rearrange some of the earmarks on the Senate side, sources said, though it is not clear who will benefit from those changes. The bill reported last week includes around $850 million worth of projects in California requested by Boxer, but only one project in Oklahoma for Inhofe, a dredging project along the Arkansas River authorized for $12 million.

Inhofe’s share of the pie is likely to increase significantly in the substitute bill, sources said, though it is unlikely Oklahoma will come anywhere near the final tally of California.

Boxer and Inhofe announced when the committee approved the bill in March that the final bill would include $140 million to repair an 85-year-old system that delivers water to towns along Montana’s northern border, at the request of Sen. Max Baucus (D), who chairs the EPW subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, which has jurisdiction over WRDA. To ensure that Republicans were treated fairly, Democrats promised to add the same amount for Republican projects — none of which are reflected in the version released last week.

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