As the president’s annual state of the union address to the nation was the hot topic this week in Washington, I had penciled it in as my weekly blog topic. My expectations were low that he’d say anything vaguely important about the workboat, maritime or waterways community. After all, like presidents before him, he had never included water transportation as a priority in previous SOTU speeches.
As these things go, SOTUs allow the sitting president to speak unfiltered to the American public, offering his views of where the country is going, how he’s going to fix what’s wrong, and what his priorities are for the new year. Tuesday night’s speech came at an especially volatile time for President Obama, as Americans have grown uneasier about his leadership and Congress seems even less willing to cooperate with his agenda.
I had already decided what to write. I would focus on what the president didn’t say in the speech, that he was yet again snubbing or ignoring water transportation, the merchant marine and the bad state of the nation’s waterways system, asking how he could be so shortsighted. Nothing new. Another story of missed opportunities.
But to my great surprise, I heard him utter the words waterways and ports. I snapped to action and immediately went for my notebook. “Oh, boy,” I thought, “I might actually have a story here!”
Obama challenged Congress to approve the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) by this summer. A WRDA bill, which sets new policies for waterways funding and project development, hasn’t been approved by Congress since 2007, and policy changes are sorely needed to set on track a maintenance, construction and repair program for the nation’s aging locks and dams. The president linked WRDA to jobs.
He suggested that closing tax loopholes could pay for such domestic improvements, saying, “we can take the money we save from this transition to tax reform to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes — because in today’s global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure.”
Obama added: “We’ll need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer. This can happen.”
Interest groups representing ports and waterways were quick to send out press releases praising the president for his support.
But it remains to be seen if Obama’s words will prod congressional action. There is already a lot of traction for WRDA in Congress, where the bill has passed the House and Senate, and is now being negotiated by a conference committee. Things there have slowed a bit because of disagreements over a few provisions. Observers hope that it can be finished much earlier than the summer, because the later it gets, the greater the chances that WRDA will get sidetracked by midterm election politics.
And that could cause another unwanted delay, while the country’s inland infrastructure continues to deteriorate.