Congressmen are now back home, trying to justify to voters why they deserve to be re-elected on Nov. 4. With party control of the Senate on the line, and lots of House seats up for grabs, both parties have a lot to be worried about. When you listen to the campaigning in many states, you often hear lawmakers congratulating themselves for voting for the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), calling it one of 113th Congress’ most significant legislative achievements.
And indeed it was a big achievement, as it sets long-overdue reforms in the way navigation projects on the nation’s rivers are prioritized, funded and managed. The bill was seven years late. The last one was passed in 2007, even though it is supposed to be renewed every year or two.
But what about other maritime bills? It’s not looking too good.
Congress will get props for creating the OneVisit Program, which eliminates the requirement that mariners make two trips to apply for and activate their TWIC cards. But lawmakers left town without completing action on several maritime bills, leaving their future in limbo.
One of them is the Coast Guard reauthorization bill that was passed the House but is pending in the Senate, where Senate Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wants to add more protections for cruise passengers over the objections of the cruise industry.
Progress was made but no final action taken on a top priority for the barge industry: a law establishing a uniform standard for ballast water and other vessel discharges. The bill is pending in the Senate and in September was introduced in the House. The barge industry wants a single authority on discharges, which are regulated currently by overlapping and inconsistent rules set by federal and state governments.
Also hanging fire is a proposed increase in the 20-cent diesel fuel tax paid by barge operators into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The fund pays half the cost of navigation construction projects along the inland river system, and taxpayers pay the rest. The tax increase is regarded as an important revenue source for inland navigation projects, and essential to helping fund new mandates under WRRDA. Industry supporters are hoping that lawmakers can take up the initiative in some kind of tax bill during the upcoming lame duck session, or more likely early next year.
And then there’s the budget. Since Congress hasn’t passed a budget, the government is now operating on a Continuing Resolution, which keeps things running until Dec. 11. The CR makes 3% across-the-board cuts in all discretionary spending. Hanging in limbo are budgets for the Coast Guard, Maritime Administration programs, including the state and federal maritime academies, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the inland navigation system.
Congress will have another shot at these bills when it returns after the election for the lame duck session on Nov. 12. Any unfinished business at that time will have to wait until the new Congress meets early next year.