RPT-U.S. Congress finds cure for gridlock in water

Reuters

* Billions for local projects prompts "love feast" in House

* Even Tea Party conservatives find plenty to like

* But no truce seen in partisan war

By Fred Barbash and Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. House ofRepresentatives has rediscovered the formula for peace, harmonyand an end to gridlock after a month of partisan warfare: $8billion worth of harbor dredging, dam and lock construction andother federal waterway improvements.

The bill got only modest attention in the aftermath of agovernment shutdown and the technological woes of PresidentObama's health law when it passed last week by a vote of 417-3.

No error there: 224 Republicans and 193 Democrats, at eachothers' throats for the past five years, joined together in whatRepresentative Virginia Foxx called a "love feast."

Pork it was not, members insisted, rejecting the oldpejorative term in favor of "infrastructure" spending, andgarnishing the title with another word, "reform," that's also invogue.

Nor, by members' definition, were these earmarks, the petprojects inserted by individual members that have become taboosymbols of lavish Washington spending.

Whatever the jargon, the Water Resources Reform andDevelopment Act was a reminder of the allure of traditionalhome-district spending and its healing power in an age ofdivision.

The bill included projects that would benefit about half ofthe state delegations in Congress, by a rough count.

For Georgia, there was an expansion of Savannah Harbor; forFlorida, improvements to the ports of Jacksonville andCanaveral, not to mention the Everglades Restoration Plan.

Texas and Louisiana won approval for the dredging of theSabine-Neches Waterway, 79 miles billed as America's "energygateway," and "the artery of southeast Texas."

Authorizations went to North Carolina, California, theMississippi Coast, Maryland, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky,Tennessee and the entire Great Lakes region. (For a factbox ofvarious projects click: )

In voting for the measure, small-government Tea Partyfaction members bucked conservative organizations, like theHeritage Foundation, that held sway over them during the Octobershowdown that shutdown the government.

And liberal Democrats bucked environmentalists, whoexpressed concerns about provisions designed to speed up theenvironmental impact assessments that sometimes slow down waterprojects.

What is more, the Senate has already approved similar -though not identical - legislation and the White House, thoughskeptical, is not threatening a veto.

"For all the hand wringing about the inability ofRepublicans and Democrats to get along in Washington, there isdefinitely one area in which they continue to get along and thatis parochial projects," said Tad DeHaven, a former Capitol Hillpolicy adviser and now a budget analyst at the Cato Institute.

BIPARTISAN REDEMPTION

A dominant theme during the debate last week was redemption.Even those who said they had concerns about the bill said theywould support it because of its bipartisan sponsorship,"something all too rare in Washington these days," saidElizabeth Esty, a Democrat of Connecticut. "I am proud to saythat this bill reflects the bipartisan action that myconstituents expect from Congress."

But Americans in search of a do-something Congress shouldnot get their hopes up.

Water bills are unique: Tea Party or not, a member ofCongress cannot go home and tell the locals that he votedagainst a deeper port or a shored-up beach.

Most vote yes, issue a press release and if possible, godown to the jetty or the dam for a photo op. "The Peoria Lockand Dam is becoming a popular place for federal legislators toconduct news conferences," the Pekin Times reported in Illinoisover the weekend after the third visit from a member of Congressin a few months.

So powerful are the forces behind water bills that whenPresident George W. Bush vetoed a $23 billion version in 2007 as"fiscally irresponsible," Congress overrode him, one of only sixveto overrides in 25 years.

Water bills are "not inherently" partisan, said PatrickGriffin, a former White House aide and now associate directorfor the Center for Congressional and Presidential studies atAmerican University.

"I'm not sure I would be betting a new era of cooperationsimply on that vote," he said.

Plus, authorizing projects is but the first step towardactually funding them. Actual spending must be approved byappropriations enacted separately by both houses of Congress.With the appropriations process broken down and replaced bytemporary crisis-mode funding showdowns, it is possible thatonly a fraction of the money promised will ever be spent.

PROJECTS ALREADY BACKLOGGED

The Army Corps of Engineers, for which the money wasauthorized, already has a $60 billion construction backlog, as askeptical White House pointed out in its response to the bill'spassage. Indeed, the bill passed by the House deauthorizeddozens of projects that had languished for years, enabling Houseconservatives to say they were offsetting the cost of the newprojects by sacrificing the old, justification for adding theword "reform" to the title of the bill.

But the questionable future of the newer projects got lostin the torrent of press releases that poured forth from membersin the days following Thursday's House vote.

Hailing the Savannah project, designed to deepen the Georgiaharbor for supertanker use, Georgia Representative Tom Graves, aRepublican Tea Party favorite, predicted that in no time, "thosesupertankers will arrive at the harbor full of goods, andGeorgia business will make sure they leave full."

The legislation "will allow larger ships to reach our portsand energy and manufacturing centers," said Texas RepresentativeRandy Weber of the Sabine-Neches Waterway project, which aims todeepen the channel from 40 to 48 feet to accommodate largerships.

Still, the measure brought back nostalgic glimpses of theway Congress used to operate, for better or worse, in the dayswhen they actually appropriated money, much of it "earmarked"for pet projects of individual members.

Though some members pine openly for a return to earmarks,arguing that they allowed Congress rather than the president todecide where money is spent, earmarks stand condemned,especially by conservatives, as a corrupting contribution toexploding deficits.

THE UNEARMARK BILL

Representative Daniel Webster of Florida contrasted thiswater bill with the one portrayed in the movie, "Mr. Smith Goesto Washington," about a naive new member who fights against adam, and the system.

Unlike the water bill in the movie, said Webster, these werenot "pet projects" but rather taken from a list provided by theArmy Corps of Engineers.

"Gone or the days of inserting earmarks at the last minute,"he said. And "gone are the days of wasting taxpayer money onpork barrel spending."

Only one member, Democrat Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, hadthe temerity to call the projects earmarks, mostly, he admitted,because he didn't get one. "I support all of these projects,"said Cleaver, but I don't have an earmark in it - and I wantone."

Democratic Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, oneof the three lawmakers to vote against the bill, also felt leftout. It failed to include reauthorization for a flood-controlproject in Roseau, Minnesota, said a spokeswoman.

The bill mobilized the big-time lobbyists, hundreds of them,according to lobbyist registration data, from power-houses likeExxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute and theNational Corn Growers Association to every county, city and evenvillages that stood to gain.

Their show of force gave them a rare victory over the newbreed of small-government ideological lobbying group, likeAmericans for Prosperity, which called it a "giant spendingbill" and the Heritage Foundation, which condemned the measureas "an abyss of spending."

Progressive Democrats came out in force to support the billas well, despite the concerns of environmental organizationsabout provisions designed to speed up time consumingenvironmental reviews required for water projects.

"This is something Congress has done many times in thepast, going back almost 200 years," said Steve Ellis,vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which urged a 'no'vote. "

"It's sort of a reflexive activity in many ways."

It also benefited from the "hangover" of the fight that shutdown the government earlier in October and nearly risked adefault.

"People were so fatigued by that," Ellis said. "If you readthe transcript of the Congressional Record, it was everybodytouting how bipartisan this is.

It was "almost like they were trying to convince themselvesthat they can do things on a bipartisan basis and wanting tomake sure that their constituents and other people thought thatWashington could work."

In the aftermath of the government shutdown, said AmericanUniversity's Griffin, there may be slightly more inclination tocooperate.

On a water bill, said Griffin, it "is probably not a mortalsin to vote on the same side as the other party. It's probablyjust a venial sin."

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