Amid the partisan rancor of Washington, D.C., a small but important development occurred in the House beyond the overwhelming bipartisan vote of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016. Two years ago, Congress pledged to return to approving WRDA every other year. The promise was kept, and it was in large part due to the long-term education and advocacy efforts of a range of groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which continued after the previous WRDA bill was signed into law.
Water resources bills are responsible for authorizing or approving construction projects for our inland waterways and ports as well as other Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works projects. When Congress fails to pass these bills, projects vital to the movement of U.S.-manufactured goods are put on hold. WRDA 2016 includes approval for infrastructure improvements, such as three lock and dam projects on the Upper Ohio River. According to the Corps, all of these lock and dam systems were built before 1936 and have structural and capacity deficiencies that increase both economic inefficiencies and consumer costs. According to the Port of Pittsburgh, the Ohio River System supports 53,000 jobs mostly for the mining and manufacturing industries. Passing legislation that improves our navigable waterways makes manufacturers more competitive in the global economy.
Unfortunately, the House WRDA bill became entangled in partisan debate surrounding government funding for safe drinking water programs to help communities like Flint, Mich., as well as a possible shutdown. In the end, a bipartisan Flint amendment was included in the bill containing $170 million for drinking water aid without violating House jurisdiction or budget rules. While the amendment passed with bipartisan support, manufacturers recognize that America’s water infrastructure—from drinking water to wastewater—urgently needs investment. The NAM has long supported policy reforms that increase access to private activity bonds and innovative public–private partnerships for water infrastructure projects.
The ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Peter DeFazio (D-OR) remained opposed to the bill because of the elimination of a bipartisan provision that would increase access to dredging money within the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The NAM strongly supported the provision. Unfortunately, it violated the House Budget rules, subjecting the entire bill to a budget point of order and jeopardizing passage of WRDA as a whole. The NAM will continue to urge Congress to increase access to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to ensure that user fees collected for harbor maintenance are spent on harbor maintenance. For example, the Brazos Island Harbor in Texas has a backlog of dredging projects that need to be completed to support the 44,000 jobs and $3 billion of economic activity at the Port of Brownsville. Without essential dredging and other maintenance, manufacturers’ ability to export our products will be put at risk.
The next step will be for House and Senate leaders to iron out the differences between the two bills. The NAM will advocate WRDA to be signed into law by the end of the year because these infrastructure investments are essential to economic competitiveness.