It was looking like the waterways industry was ready to score a big victory on Capitol Hill Wednesday with passage of an appropriations bill that included record spending for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the nation’s inland waterways.
And then politics got in the way.
Late Wednesday night, the 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, normally a non-controversial measure, was defeated on a 112-305 vote.
Failure came after a political dust-up between House Democrats and Republicans over a number of amendments including one that would prevent federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. The LGBT provision, offered by openly gay Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat, angered Republicans.
But Republicans did some maneuvering of their own, offering provisions involving the Iran nuclear deal and defending North Carolina’s controversial transgender bathroom law that infuriated Democrats.
In the end, everyone — from waterways advocates to gay rights proponents — came up losers, with the bill being defeated, and members of both parties blaming the other for the outcome.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said Democrats were “not looking to advance an issue but to sabotage the appropriations process.”
It’s not yet clear what will happen to the bill, as until last night it had passed the Senate and was on a fast track through the House (although President Obama had said he would veto it over a number of energy riders he didn’t like). It might go back to the congressional committees, or it could get rolled into a so-called Continuing Resolution, which would fund the Corps programs at current levels.
Waterways groups were surprised and disappointed with the defeat. “Both the Senate-passed appropriations bill, and the marked-up House bill, recommended strong funding levels for the Corps,” said Debra Calhoun, senior vice president at the Waterways Council Inc., a barge industry supported group that lobbied for the bill. “Lock and dam infrastructure needs are great, so we hope the House might negotiate a better outcome ahead. Time will tell.”
The bill would have given the Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program a record $6 billion, $11 million more than the current enacted level. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill restores a 23% cut to the Corps’ budget that had been proposed in February by the Obama administration.
Funding was included to continue construction of the Olmsted lock and dam project on the Ohio River near the Illinois and Kentucky borders, to restart construction of the Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, and continue the Lower Monongahela River River Locks and Dams 2,3, 4 project in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, progress continues on putting the Water Resources and Reform Act (WRRDA) back on a two-year authorization track. Two different bills are working their way swiftly through both chambers.
The 2016 bill authorizes water projects to be studied, planned and developed by by the Corps of Engineers, and would implement policy changes to the agency’s water projects and programming.
In an outcome sought by the waterways industry, both the House and Senate bills do not include lockage fees or tolls to finance public-private partnerships that would rehabilitate or build locks and dams.
In another provision sought by waterways advocates, the Senate version would protect certain waterways projects from being decommissioned if they have been sitting on a backlog list for five years or longer. This provision is in response to the over-budget and much-delayed Olmsted project, which has been draining money from the IWTF, forcing the Corps to put many other projects on hold.
An aid package to address the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich, is included in the Senate version, but not the more modest House bill.