House members overwhelmingly rejected infrastructure demagoguery on Tuesday by passing the conference report for the Water Resources Reform and Development Act to fund water infrastructure projects.
The bill passed 412-4, marking one of the biggest bipartisan mandates of the year. A final vote in the Senate, likely later this week, sends the bill to the president.
House leaders praised the $12.3 billion bill because it doesn't include earmarks for specific projects favored by lawmakers. Congressmen from both parties took to Twitter to champion the vote.
One of the key provisions in the bill for river projects is the shifting of funding responsibilities for the Olmsted Locks and Dam project. The federal government will take over 85% of the costs of the project with 15% coming from the Waterways Trust Fund. That is estimated to free up more than $100 million annually for other inland projects.
WRRDA authorizes 34 water resources projects across the country that have cleared technical reviews by the Army Corps of Engineers.
WRRDA also eliminates as much as $18 billion in planned projects by the Army Corps of Engineers that have never gotten off the ground. It also is expected to accelerate project planning and development times that have stretched to longer than 15 years in some cases. The Corps would have three years to do feasibility studies and have a $3 million cap.
Besides inland projects, the bill also authorizes and funds dredging projects to expand ports along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico to handle deeper drafts from larger ships that will be able to navigate the new lock being built in the Panama Canal.
WRRDA also includes a study on the Mississippi River bases to examine how it should be managed during floods or other extreme events.
The bill pitted vote scoring by the American Farm Bureau versus the conservative group Heritage Action. Farm Bureau backed the bill, calling it a priority issue for the group. Heritage said the bill spent too much and "crosses five out of six red lines" created by the group. Heritage ended up being run over like a buoy in front of a runaway barge.
Four congressmen got gold stars from Heritage for voting no on the bill: Justin Amash of Michigan, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Matt Salmon of Arizona.
Some environmental groups continue to pan the bill as well, but for different reasons. They argue WRRDA strips too many provisions meant to safeguard wildlife and the environment.
The National Corn Growers Association praised the House voted and called on the Senate to quickly vote on the bill as well. "WRRDA is crucial to farmers as more than 60 percent of the nation's grain exports are transported by barge," said Martin Barbre, president of NCGA. "The locks and dams we depend upon to transport our cargoes today were built in the 1920s and 1930s. It is imperative that we improve this crucial infrastructure. The need is urgent; U.S. farmers and businesses rely upon this transportation channel. Infrastructure improvements fuel our domestic economy and improve our ability to compete in markets abroad."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters on Tuesday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell informed other Republican senators WRRDA would come up for a vote sometime this week.
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