There was little fanfare. No press conferences. No drum rolls. It was like a tree falling in the forest. Hardly anyone noticed — unless you were a member of the Inland Waterways Users Board, or a board wannabe.
In April, terms of the 11-member board expired, and since then, the IWUB has languished in a bureaucratic hole. It has no new authorized members, and as such, can’t get a quorum, can’t hold a meeting, and can’t work on its intended purpose: to recommend priorities and expenditures for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for construction and repair on the fuel-taxed inland waterways system.
The IWUB, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, developed the Capital Development Plan, which outlines a new funding strategy for the nation’s aging inland river infrastructure. More than 200 users of the system have endorsed the plan, but “tax” and spending elements of it are controversial in Congress, slowing its progress.
The administration has yet to appoint members to the IWUB, a congressionally created advisory panel, even though terms of sitting board members expired in April and a list of recommendations is awaiting action at the secretary of the Army’s office.
There’s apparently a hang-up over whether a federal rule that says government appointees must support the president’s positions should apply to IWUB membership. Since IWUB members are there to present the interests of the industry and the needs of the waterways system, a waiver is apparently needed, and this has caused the delay.
This suits critics just fine. In fact they would like to see the board abolished. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit organization that bills itself as a budget watchdog that serves as an independent voice for U.S. taxpayers, has testified to Congress that the panel is just another example of how the inland river system is coddled and subsidized.
“I am not aware of a similar entity with such a role in directing federal spending,” Steve Ellis, that organization’s vice president told a congressional hearing in September. “There is no port or highway or airport users board made up entirely of industry officials and staffed by government employees, charged with making recommendations on the priorities and spending from a trust fund.”
Taxpayers for Common Sense, he said, has called for the abolishment of the Inland Waterway Users Board.
The delay has many in the waterways community wondering if the Obama administration might be feeling the same way. “This could be just another sign that the administration has no interest in, or understanding of, the inland waterways and their importance to our national economy,” one industry insider told me.