By Jake Assael
On July 18, the Senate begins its mid-Summer recess putting its legislative duties aside until returning on September 5. With the break looming over members the pressure to pass vital legislation continues to mount. The two-month hiatus will stall a series of bills on the Senate’s Calendar of Business, awaiting floor time and highlighting the ineffectiveness and polarization of congress.
Of the legislation that is treading water prior to the summer break, none might be as influential as the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016. Approved by a 19 to 1 vote on April 28, by the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works (EPW), the authorization bill has since become a casualty of the ineptitude of the Senate. WRDA, which provides the U.S Army Corps of Engineers with its marching orders, authorizes shore protection and other types of water resource projects making them eligible for funding. It also contains provisions that would modernize shoreline management techniques, such as beneficial use of dredged materials and coastal resilience collaboration. Water infrastructure such as dams, locks, and harbors, as well as our inland waterways and drinking water quality would also be impacted. It would be the third WRDA bill passed since 2000, with the last being passed in 2014. WRDA bills were intended to be pursued every two years. Congress recommitted itself to its pledge in 2014. WRDA also has implications on congresses ability to limit the executive branch. A regular WRDA allows Congress to set the boundaries, exerting its authority over coastal and Army Corps issues. As Republicans hammer the President for his overreach of power, this would be an opportunity to limit his clout.
EPW leadership stepped up lobbying for WRDA in early June, asking stakeholders to support their efforts to bring WRDA to a floor vote. This was followed by a letter sent on June 23, by 87 groups, including steel and construction industry groups, energy associations, and agricultural interest groups. The letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid asking that they bring WRDA to the floor. The following week, on June 29, a subsequent letter was sent to Senate Republican leadership by Senator James Inhofe and 28 other Republican Senators. Senator Inhofe who is also the legislation’s main sponsor, followed up his letter with a speech on the Senate floor calling it a, “must-pass bill.”
When an authorization or appropriations bill passes through committee it is automatically added to the Senate’s Calendar of Business, but that does not guarantee it immediate floor time. Several pieces of legislation, including the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and the Energy Policy Modernization Act have both been allotted significant time in the final week before the summer recess. For WRDA to be brought to a floor debate and ensuing vote, there would need to be the kind of speed and bipartisanship that has not been a hallmark of Congress this year. For example, it takes unanimous consent from Senators to just take the bill from the calendar so that it can be debated. If one member is opposed, the Senators supporting the bill must invoke cloture, which places limits on debate and would allow WRDA to proceed. After moving the bill off the calendar, cloture would need to be invoked again if opposition persists when motioning to bring it to a debate and vote. Once on the floor the bill could then be debated for hours, before coming to a vote where it may be rejected. The House has proved just as inadequate as the Senate, unable to pass WRDA out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Congress is once again gripped by gridlock. WRDA, despite bi-partisan support will have to wait until September or more likely after the election for a floor vote. The coastal communities that are dependent on federal funds to stave off rapidly rising seas, will need to seek out alternative funding methods. The reign of intense polarization, which even prevented a Zika bill from being passed in the midst of a mosquito laden summer, has confounded Congress. If Congress cannot recalibrate, prioritizing America’s budget and complimentary legislation, a July recess won’t be what looms over congress, but a government shutdown.