Oberstar: Republicans Thwarting Important Water Bill

Posted October 27, 2010 at 12:48pm

Each Congress, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which I serve as chairman, considers the Water Resources Development Act to authorize critical navigation, flood protection and environmental restoration projects. These projects, which are carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, create family-wage jobs, protect our citizens and communities from flooding and damaging coastal storms and help restore many of America’s natural treasures.

[IMGCAP(1)]WRDA projects have enabled our nation to develop vital navigation corridors, such as the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers and the ports of Los Angeles and New York-New Jersey. Through the years, those corridors have been a critical link in the nation’s economic growth, because they moved goods and services to domestic and international markets, and they are a crucial factor in our economic recovery today. By preventing economic damage to major cities and small towns from flooding or coastal storms, WRDA projects have resulted in billions of dollars of federal savings. Additionally, WRDA legislation has set in motion national efforts to restore many of our ecological treasures, such as the Florida Everglades.

The slow economic recovery is another reason to enact WRDA legislation — not shelve it. In its statement in support of a WRDA bill earlier this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce affirmed that “infrastructure investment is a proven strategy for job creation.”

Throughout its history, the committee has developed bipartisan WRDA legislation, including most recently in 2007, which authorizes projects without regard to the political party of the Member of Congress representing the district in which the project is located. In 2007, overwhelming bipartisan support for WRDA enabled Congress to successfully override a presidential veto for only the 107th time in the nation’s history, and WRDA 2007 has been responsible for making communities across the nation safer and more economically viable.

Regrettably, the pull of partisan politics has upset the better traditions of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and threatens efforts to meet the nation’s flood protection, navigation and environmental restoration challenges. For the first time, the Republican leadership of the committee opposes passage of a new WRDA. They question the need for continued investment in our nation’s infrastructure, suggesting that “times are different” and that even “wise investments in navigation and flood protection infrastructure” should be shelved.

I find these positions troubling for many reasons.

First, it is important to recognize the difference between authorizing these vital water-related projects, as opposed to funding these projects through Congressional appropriations. The simple difference is that authorizing legislation, such as WRDA, establishes priorities in meeting the nation’s vital infrastructure needs. These bills have no effect on federal spending, the deficit or the national debt, because authorizing legislation does not allocate funding for the projects. Instead, authorizing legislation only provides our communities the ability to compete with other projects for the limited federal resources that will be made available through the appropriations process.

Second, we must recognize that any delay in the authorization of vital water-resources projects will only cost taxpayers more in the long run and will place certain communities at greater risk of further economic woes, or worse, leave communities at risk from flooding or coastal storm damage. Delays in the construction schedule can have significant effects on the final cost of a Corps project, because of inefficient use of the workforce and the likelihood of increased costs for building materials because of inflation. Any delay in the authorization of Corps projects will result in projects that cost more in the long run and will impede the realization of the economic or environmental benefits the projects can provide to the nation.

Finally, I am concerned with the message that this misleading claim of fiscal responsibility sends to states and local communities. These traditional partners in carrying out projects and studies with the Corps would benefit from the predictability of biennial WRDAs. Many communities have already invested millions of dollars to develop approved projects, and the projects have been determined by the Chief of Engineers to benefit the nation.

But those projects have been prohibited from moving forward because of new, partisan opposition by Republican leadership. As a result, projects that protect or otherwise benefit local residents, regions and the nation as a whole are in limbo.

Unfortunately, the policies of Republican leadership seem to suggest that Kansas City, which has completed a flood protection project, is more deserving than Topeka, which is awaiting authorization of its approved flood protection project. Republicans apparently think the development of navigation channels in Virginia and Texas is more important than those along the Lower Ohio River, which are awaiting WRDA authorization.

Both categories of projects have been amply studied and both have received the approval of the Chief of Engineers. The only difference between these “haves” and “have-nots” is that fact that the Kansas City, Virginia and Texas projects were included in previously enacted WRDAs, while the Topeka and Lower Ohio River projects have yet to be enacted.

In the past, Congress has stood by local communities in their desire to safeguard homes and businesses from flood damage, and have supported efforts to develop a world-class system of ports and waterways and promoted projects to enhance and protect our natural environment. The reality is that our needs have not changed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the politics of the day.

We must seize the chance to put in place the next generation of projects and policies to ensure our nation will be stronger and better prepared to meet the transportation and infrastructure challenges of the 21st century.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.