A Huge Step Forward for Renewing MAP-21

Glass Half Full

Yes, we see our glass half full.

The odds on renewing MAP-21 before it expires next October 1 just increased dramatically, we think. It’s still a very heavy lift, due to the funding challenge. But the House’s recent legislative action on a water transportation bill, combined with the Senates action last May, gives us renewed hope.

To recap: only 13 Members of Congress voted against a bill in their Chamber that authorized funding for projects, curbed some environmental regulations – a bill that was strongly opposed by environmental groups, influential conservative policy groups and budget hawk think tanks. The bill was strongly supported by a coalition of industries and business associations, and communities who depend on rivers, ports, and locks across the country for commerce and trade.

A whopping 417 House Members voted for the Water Resources Reform and Development bill. Only three – three! – House members voted against the bill*. No one predicted that vote margin. A coalition of conservative (e.g., Heritage) and budget hawk (e.g. Taxpayers for Common Sense) think tanks strongly opposed the bill. Therefore many observers expected perhaps as many as 30 to 40 “no” votes. Instead, virtually every liberal Democrat and every Tea Party Republican voted for the bill.  In fact at least one prominent Tea Party member spoke on the floor in support of the bill, citing Congress’s constitutional role in providing infrastructure.

Of perhaps greater significance: the Rules Committee rejected amendments from Republicans wishing to reign in EPA, and from Democrats wishing to preserve the status quo of environmental regulations on water projects.

Last May, 83 Senators voted for their version of the bill (WRDA), with only ten Senators voting no.

So we have a possible roadmap for the next MAP-21 – at least on the policy side:

  • Convince enough conservatives that infrastructure is a constitutional duty of Congress, and will benefit the industries, businesses and communities in their state.
  • Work on a truly bipartisan basis at the committee level to craft a bill that has some distasteful pieces, but the whole of which a majority in each party can live with.
  • Include project streamlining provisions (i.e., environmental reforms) that go far enough to attract Republican votes, but don’t go so far as to lose Democratic votes.
  • Have a broad coalition of industries, businesses and communities

Yes, we admit our glass is half full. The water bill does not have the funding challenges of MAP-21. And Congress essentially agrees on the federal government’s role in water transportation, while sharply disagreeing on its role in surface transportation. And maybe conservative and environmental groups will ramp up their opposition to the next proposed transportation bill, after losing on the water bill.

Still, Senate EPW Chair Barbara Boxer and Ranking Republican David Vitter, and House Transportation Chair Bill Shuster and Ranking Democrat Nick Rahall have a very impressive and practically unique accomplishment (for this year, at least).  How many other substantive bills passed Congress with those bipartisan margins this year? Heck, how many substantive bills have passed at all?

Assuming the House and Senate will bridge their differences and send a final bill to the President, Congress’s action on the water transportation bill is a glaring sunspot of optimism and bipartisanship amid the gloom of the recent acrimonious budget debate.

This is an achievement that can be built upon and lead to renewing MAP-21 next year.

*Politico reports (paywall story) the three “no” votes were for parochial not philosophical reasons:

Republican Walter Jones represents North Carolina’s Atlantic coastline and said the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t have enough money to maintain existing projects in his district and adding new projects to the Corps’s portfolio would only make things worse. He also didn’t like how a project authorized in 1970 would likely get cut thanks to the bill’s $12 billion in deauthorizations.

Democrat Collin Peterson opposed the bill because it didn’t include a reauthorization for a flood diversion project in Roseau, a small city about 10 miles south of the Canadian border.