A ban on earmarks. A shift in congressional leadership. A five-year spending freeze. Deep cuts in federal programs that oversee the nation’s infrastructure. Rejection of a plan to reform inland infrastructure funding.
These are just some of the challenges facing the waterways industry as it tries to navigate the murky and turbulent political waters in Washington during a legislative session that will surely be affected by Tea Party politics, budget showdowns and political discord.
“We had a very difficult time in the last Congress,” said Thomas Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators. “We had a near-death experience with oil spill legislation in the Senate that would have been detrimental to our industry.”
The new legislative landscape controlled by Republicans in the House and Democrats in the White House and Senate will be even more challenging, Allegretti said.
AWO and its members must educate a new crop of legislators who enter Congress with little or no appreciation for the value of inland transportation. “It’s a never-ending cycle of constant educating and relationship building,” he said.
The current budget-cutting climate in Washington, spurred by record deficits, is not helpful to the waterways.
In his fiscal year 2012 budget, President Obama proposed a 15 percent cut in the current level of funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program, which funds inland infrastructure construction, operation and maintenance. Republican leaders in the House want even deeper cuts.
In addition, the current moratorium on earmarks by the House leadership and Senate Republicans will most certainly impact funding decisions involving waterways projects — especially congressional consideration of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which authorizes individual modernization projects that by most accounts would be considered earmarks.
The ban garnered even more significance when President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would veto any bill containing earmarks. Waterways advocacy groups are trying to convince Congress to exclude water resources projects from the ban as they already undergo extensive scrutiny through highly detailed studies.
Waterways suffered another blow in December when the Obama administration rejected a waterways funding plan that was jointly developed by industry and officials of the Corps of Engineers after 18 months of deliberations.
The rejection came as a surprise to the industry, which believed it had a comprehensive and workable plan that would be acceptable to Congress and the White House. The administration saw many flaws in it, however, most notably a shift in the financial responsibility for waterways construction and modernization to the federal government.
The fate of a reform plan is now uncertain, and it appears that the barge industry and the administration will have to return to the table and hammer out a new proposal.