BEDFORD – It’s been a little more than 50 years since Congress passed a bill authorizing $32 million for the massive engineering project that would become Raystown Lake.
At that time, the key to a successful funding bill was a guarantee of projects in select representatives’ districts.
And for decades, Congress passed the so-called Water Resources Development Acts every few years, without much fuss. But in today’s legislative environment – with federal earmarks banned and the House of Representatives stocked with relative newcomers – a project like Raystown Lake would be far from guaranteed.
It’s in that environment that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-9th District, must navigate the first water-projects bill in six years and the first in decades to exclude the infamous “pork” earmarks.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Shuster said at a Friday business breakfast at Homewood at Spring House Estates retirement center. “It’s not something you’re going to see reported much. It’s not sexy.”
Since the 1930s, the Water Resources Development Acts and similar bills have authorized money for flood-control, river and coastal projects by the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2007, Congress overrode President George W. Bush’s veto to approve tens of billions of dollars’ worth of work, including upgrades at Raystown Lake and throughout Pennsylvania.
But the periodic approvals didn’t specify how to pay for the projects, and a thick backlog of planned but yet-to-begin work has developed. An ongoing moratorium on earmarks has kept Congress from making any changes since 2007. This fall, however, Shuster is set to press a water bill that supposedly diverges so sharply from its predecessors that he’s added the word “Reform” to its name.
“Water bills typically happen every Congress” until recently, Shuster said. “And they should happen. We’re going to do a new bill every two years, or every year if needed.”
The 2013 bill, he said, will require studies and engineering reports for all proposed projects. Gone will be the days when a congressman could simply pencil in a hoped-for dam or reservoir, he said. Army Corps of Engineers projects will be selected through a formula, Shuster said. And most radically, the bill is slated to deauthorize funding for backlogged plans that aren’t likely to go anywhere – reigning in the nationwide queue for work.
Shuster said he’ll soon have to meet with officials from Louisiana and tell them one of their proposals likely won’t make the cut.
“There’s a big project there, and I’m going to have to tell them ‘no,’” he said.
Passage of the bill isn’t guaranteed, though the Senate passed its own version in May. Many of the representatives on whom the bill will depend are relative newcomers and have never debated a Water Resources Development Act, Shuster noted. And while Shuster has contended with the earmarks moratorium, he suggested Friday that their return could help Congress on more than just the water-projects bill.
Without earmarks, he said, Congress surrenders more power to the executive branch and to opaque federal bureaucracies – a recurring issue he has raised both in public speeches and in proposed legislation.
“Revenue and spending – that’s Congress’ purview,” Shuster said. “Earmarks have a bad name to them. But there are earmarks done every day, and they’re not done by Congress – they’re done by the administration.”
Shuster cited I-99, for which his father secured funding during his time in Congress, as an example of a beneficial local earmark.