WASHINGTON – The House approved legislation last week that authorized nearly $9 billion for flood control and navigation projects despite concerns by environmental and fiscal watchdogs.
Lawmakers voted 417-3 to pass the Water Resources Reform and Development Act that serves as a budget and policy blueprint for projects undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the reforms included in the bill are critical for the nation’s economy.
“Without improvement, our water transportation system becomes obsolete every day and we become less competitive. If we cannot compete, we lose jobs to those who can,” Shuster said.
The bill would scrap $12 billion of old and inactive projects from a $60 billion Corps backlog. Supporters said It cuts red tape and sets hard deadlines on the time and cost of studies. And it expands the ability for project supporters to use funding outside the federal government to expedite permit processing.
America’s ports receive and ship an estimated $1.4 trillion in goods each year, impacting 30 million jobs, according to Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio.
Ten fiscal watchdog groups – including Taxpayers for Common Sense, Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity – signed a letter complained the legislation does not contain meaningful reforms.
The legislation would “only shave a few billion dollars off the backlog” while protecting $28 billion in projects authorized six years ago that have not begun construction, the groups wrote.
Even as House Democrats supported the underlying bill, some complained streamlining the approval process would undermine environmental protections secured under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said there was no evidence that the review process has delayed projects. Instead, he argued, Congress caused the backlog by failing to provide the funding needed to complete the water projects it authorized.
Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it is “unconscionable” that the House voted to weaken NEPA, adding that it would lead to “steamrolling approval of major dams and other water projects, bypassing a long-established process of public review.”
DeFazio offered an amendment that would have removed – at least temporarily – the streamlining of the review process from the bill. It was defeated, 236-183.
Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, voted against DeFazio’s amendment.
The Senate, which was not in session last week, approved its version of the bill in May. The House and Senate will now have to negotiate a compromise bill for final approval.
Crawford, Cotton, Griffin and Womack voted for passage of the bill.