Congress May Exit Early to Campaign After Short-Term Funding, WRDA Action

AASHTO Journal, 16 September 2016

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill could reportedly leave Washington for the campaign trail before the end of September as originally scheduled, after acting on short-term legislation to fund most government agencies another two months at fiscal 2016 levels and advancing bills to authorize water projects.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scheduled votes to begin Sept. 19 on a continuing resolution that would keep the government open until Dec. 9, with reports that he would want to complete the CR process by Sept. 23.

Negotiations continued over what to include in that CR, with some suggesting it could include a range of specific provisions such as special aid to help Louisiana recover from heavy recent floods, funds to help Flint., Mich., replace its lead-contaminated drinking water system and emergency funds to fight the Zika disease outbreak.

capitol0816.jpg Since it is not expected to include full-year appropriations for the U.S. Department of Transportation, the CR would leave state DOTs without the highway and transit funding increases they were authorized to receive as of the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year, under last December’s Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

State agencies often draw up their lists of projects in the autumn to bid out for the coming construction season, so a delay of more than two months in getting their fiscal 2017 FAST Act increases could disrupt planning for some and raises uncertainty about final congressional action. A joint committee of several major infrastructure organizations approved a resolution of their own that calls on Congress to quickly restore full FAST Act funding. (See related story in today’s AASHTO Journal.)

Once the Senate completes work on its CR, senators could head for the exits and many of them to campaign events ahead of November elections. One-third of Senate seats go before voters every two years.

As expected, the Senate on Sept. 15 overwhelmingly passed its version of a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which includes projects to deepen harbors for cargo vessels, build flood protections and upgrade drinking water infrastructure. It also includes funds to help Flint, Mich., with its drinking water crisis, although reports said the CR might cover that as well.

Among other provisions, the Senate WRDA measure would increase the federal cost share of dredging coastal ports’ harbors to depths between 45 and 50 feet, so they could take the much bigger, deeper-draft container ships now moving through larger Panama Canal locks that opened this year. It would also authorize some Mississippi River dredging.

A number of state DOTs would be affected by its navigation provisions as well as the flood-control projects.

The bill would authorize some projects under the Army Corps of Engineers and others under the EPA. The Congressional Budget Office estimated its 10-year cost at $10.6 billion.

The House could also take up its differing WRDA bill in the coming week, which would allow staff from both chambers to begin work on a possible compromise measure that Congress could complete when it returns in a lame-duck session. Among other differences it does not include the Flint aid.

Reports said the House was generally expected to follow the Senate’s lead on a short-term CR, although some House conservatives continued to say they preferred to extend 2016 funding levels well into calendar 2017 to head off a potential lame-duck budget deal that increases federal spending.

Once the House takes action on a CR to avoid a government shutdown, it would also be likely to recess until after the elections. Voters decide who fills all House seats every two years.

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