Transportation chiefs in Congress were a bit stymied over the last two years when they crafted a surface transportation bill that didn't have earmarks. House Republicans were resolute in their determination to get rid of the legislative goodies that have given elected officials a bad name. But it also made a transportation legislator's life that much more difficult: It's hard to write legislation about maintaining roads, bridges, runways, and transit without identifying the specific areas that need tuning up. It's even harder to pass it.
Lawmakers have a similar challenge before them this year in the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct water-related projects such as flood control, port improvements, and river cleanup. Some transportation experts point out that WRDA, which dictates the country's major water infrastructure projects for the next five to 10 years, is actually nothing but earmarks.
"How do you move a WRDA bill forward when historically it's been line after line, naming a project, naming a study," Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said at a National Journal event last week. "We're trying to figure out a way to live through the moratorium on earmarks, which is very difficult."
Read more about Shuster's interview with National Journal here.
You can view Shuster's full interview here, which covers a wide variety of topics.
On WRDA, Shuster's first concern is reining in the Corps such that projects don't extend 15 years or longer without results. He also wants to make sure Congress doesn't hand over its authority on water projects to the executive branch, an easy trap for lawmakers who are handcuffed by budget constraints and the no-earmark rule.
Shuster is just getting started, and we'll eagerly wait to see how he navigates those impediments. Some of the federal streamlining he envisions for the Corps mirrors language in last year's surface transportation bill, which helps. And it will be a warm-up for the highway and transit reauthorization debate next year, where the same problems remain.
Did transportation get unfairly shafted in the rush to ban earmarks, which were really intended to combat questionable appropriations practices? Is the WRDA bill worse, in terms of looking like a pile of earmarks, than a surface transportation bill? Are there lessons from last year's highway and transit bill negotiations that can help lawmakers drafting a water resources bill? What other issues that could cause problems in that process?