Boxer Plans Strategy to Bring Up Water Bill Without Violating Earmark Ban

Posted September 21, 2012 at 12:00am

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer says she’s figured out a way to pass a comprehensive water resources authorization bill without running afoul of the congressional moratorium on earmarks.

The California Democrat, who said she hopes to report a bill out of committee during the lame-duck session, said her proposal would establish standards for Army Corps of Engineers projects that would qualify for funding instead of authorizing specific projects in the legislation.

The strategy would mark a significant change in the way Congress funds ports and inland waterways projects. Previous water resources laws have been a collection of projects earmarked by lawmakers, a practice currently barred by House and Senate rules.

While Boxer says she plans to bring a bill to the Senate floor during the postelection lame-duck session, the history of previous fights over water resources authorizations suggests that may be wildly optimistic. Even with earmarks to help win votes, the last Water Resources Development Act (PL 110-114) became law in 2007 only after seven years of congressional deadlock.

And the top Republican on the committee’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, David Vitter of Louisiana, said he will demand “significant, important reform of the Army Corps of Engineers” as the price of supporting a water bill.

‘Dream Bill’

Boxer said she plans to write “my dream bill,” then circulate it to the committee’s ranking Republican, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, as well as to Vitter and Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

“Take out a pencil and a pen, cross out, add, and let’s get it done,” Boxer said. The role of Baucus is especially important, since he also serves as chairman of the Finance Committee, which would be responsible for finding any necessary budget offsets for projects not covered by trust funds.

The earmark moratorium poses a special challenge in writing a water bill. Unlike surface transportation funds, which are largely distributed to states under funding formulas, previous water bills have authorized funding on a project-by-project basis.

The challenge facing authorizers is to write a bill that establishes objective criteria for dispensing funds. But even if they can work that out, it is difficult to imagine Congress passing such complex legislation during the lame-duck session, when lawmakers will be preoccupied with trying to reach a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff and passing a defense authorization bill.

Janet Kavinoky, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top infrastructure lobbyist, said enacting a water bill is a critical follow-up to the surface transportation (PL 112-141) and aviation (PL 112-95) authorizations enacted earlier this year.

“Now it’s time to finish the job and focus on waterway resources and, in particular, navigation,” Kavinoky said. “It has a direct influence on the U.S. economy.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 21,