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February 9, 2016

House GOP Touts Water Bill as a Sign of Thriving, Post-Earmark World

The water bill heading for a final vote is earmark free, after a long process from Shuster, left and Rahall. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The water bill heading for a final vote is earmark free, after a long process and compromise from Shuster, left and Rahall, among others. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated, May 17, 3:31 p.m. | The notion of passing a major infrastructure bill through the House and Senate without earmarks seemed, at first, unthinkable.

After all, it’s a highly dysfunctional Congress, there’s an army of outside conservative groups ready to thwart legislation that doesn’t meet their standards and members from both parties have complained an earmark moratorium is a reason it’s tough to get anything done.

But Speaker John A. Boehner insists things can get done, and he and Rep. Bill Shuster have a bipartisan water bill coming up to prove it. Should they succeed in the next few days, it might pave the way for a highway bill without special projects attached.

The bill is the bipartisan, bicameral conference report for the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, and the speaker touts it as “a significant policy achievement.”

“Earmarks aren’t coming back on my watch,” the Ohio Republican told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “With the reforms in this agreement, Chairman Shuster has proven that we can do water resources bills without earmarks, and for that he deserves great credit.”

As a first-term chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Shuster would have had an easier time seven years ago, when legislation to fund key water and infrastructure initiatives around the country was last signed into law.

That water bill was historically one of the only pieces of legislation to repeatedly come before Congress composed almost entirely of earmarks, basically constituting a laundry list of line items handpicked by lawmakers to pay for specific projects in their districts.

So Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, got to work early in the 113th Congress. He labored with his committee’s ranking member Nick J. Rahall II, a West Virginia Democrat facing a difficult re-election battle, to build consensus for the billions of dollars worth of water projects. (The final conference report hasn’t been scored, but House aides predicted the cost will be close to the Senate’s bill, which would cost $5.7 billion over five years.)

Shuster also reached out to the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee with WRRDA jurisdiction, Republican Bob Gibbs of Ohio and Democrat Timothy H. Bishop of New York.

Supported by party leadership and staff, Shuster set out to build consensus in uncharted territory. The congressman’s goal, according to GOP committee aides, was to educate everyone who would have a stake in the final bill.

He invited industry groups to Capitol Hill to weigh in, and he traveled across the country to learn what was important outside the Beltway. Shuster also took a hands-on approach to the social media campaign surrounding the effort, even lending his voice to an “explainer” video walking laymen through the ins and outs of reauthorizing water infrastructure projects.

Anticipating pushback from the right over legislation typically criticized for wasteful spending and government overreach, Shuster made sure conservatives were all on board, from Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana to to the usual suspects in the outside advocacy group community.

Heritage Action for America spokesman Dan Holler told CQ Roll Call that Shuster’s gestures went a long way toward his group’s inclination not to score votes on the measure when it first passed the House last fall, which meant there weren’t political consequences for backing it on the floor.

“You pull back and look at what this bill is, it is not something that we would generally be supportive of, [but] they went through a very painstaking process through this, and that really gave them an opportunity to explain what they were doing,” Holler said.

And Republican and Democratic committee staff worked on getting around the whole earmark problem.

In the past, individuals would take their water infrastructure requests to the Army Corps of Engineers — which executes construction and maintenance activities — directly to their representatives on Capitol Hill. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Senate counterpart, the Committee on Environment and Public Works, would then fashion new authorization bills based on those requests.

While the practice clearly ran afoul of the earmarking ban, stopping it would mean ceding authority to the executive branch. The Senate’s approach to skirting its own earmark prohibition involved automatically authorizing projects with positive reviews from the Army Corps of Engineers.

But Shuster and other House Republicans didn’t like the idea of handing over project selection powers to the Obama administration — or any future administration — for fear that Congress wouldn’t be able to easily wrest back that power.

For WRRDA, their solution was to create a whole new process wherein local sponsors would take their projects directly to their regional Army Corps of Engineers office for review. Positively reviewed projects would be submitted to Congress as part of annual reports, and lawmakers would get to review those reports before including them in future water bills.

Shuster and company took their pitch to Republican leaders, who gave them the green light to move ahead. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House late last year, with just three dissenting votes. When both chambers finally finished hashing out one combined water bill, the House’s framework prevailed.

Two days after the conference report’s release, Holler told reporters that Heritage Action and the group’s think tank and policy arm, the Heritage Foundation, felt that while the final product was a step in the right direction, its conservative credentials had been diluted by the Democratic-controlled Senate during negotiations.

“We’re not exactly impressed,” Holler said, but he stopped short of suggesting the group would seek to punish lawmakers who vote “yes.” Even if Heritage Action does decide to score votes, the bill is likely to pass, given its wide bipartisan support and the compelling narrative Republicans have created around the bill as one that doesn’t betray the party’s values.

The last WRRDA measures became law in 2007, only after Congress took a rare vote to override President George W. Bush’s veto of the legislation on the grounds that it spent too much — on earmarks. Shuster’s goal? Reauthorizing the law in 2016 and every two years hence.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Bishop said lawmakers felt “a sense of urgency” to get to work because it had been seven years since the last legislation. He dubbed the earmark ban “bad public policy,” but admitted the process worked well this year.

Practically speaking, WRRDA is so unique it’s not likely to give lawmakers a template they can replicate in other comparable bills. It could, however, create precedent going forward in an earmark-free Congress, especially in the case of the highway bill, which needs to be reauthorized this year and probably won’t enjoy as smooth and bipartisan a legislative journey.

The Senate is already generating new ideas on how to retain lawmakers’ supervision of project selection without relying on earmarks, no doubt inspired by provisions in the water bill.

Earlier this month, the Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Senate’s proposed highway legislation, which would include a new grant program run by the Transportation Department that would spend $400 million annually on projects of regional or national significance.

There is a similar, existing DOT initiative known as TIGER, but the Senate program would be subject to greater congressional oversight: If lawmakers don’t like what they see, they’ll be able to block funding with a joint resolution of disapproval.

The Senate proposal is an attempt to get to the heart of objections to the earmark ban, the argument that it diminishes Congress’ power over purse strings.

On the House side of the Capitol, Shuster has no illusions about the challenges of passing a highway bill, particularly when the matter of funding is still in question. But a Republican Transportation committee staffer called WRRDA a “blueprint” for Shuster going forward.

The chairman expressed similar remarks at an association gathering earlier this year: “I’m really lucky that I had the WRRDA bill first … I learned a tremendous amount on how to put something together.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated the day after it was published to add breaking news about Heritage Action’s stance on the legislation.

  • The American Progressive

    Earmarks, cutting them saves 0.5% of the budget.

    • Stephen Barlow

      1/2 the current DOD budget STILL gives us 10 times money to blow on useless weapons like the F-35 Boondoogle than the next 5 armies in the world put together.

      But it would save 16% of the Budget.

      What a nice tax cut THAT would end up being for the rich!!!

      • Stephen Barlow

        Of COURSE you lov the filibuster!!! A guy who is nothing but talk an only can manage to waste time yammering what Fox and Beck fed him for dinner… has no choice BUT that obsession.

        I DO realize you are bating me so the censors might even ‘ban’ ME… But they are smart enough to know your base baselessness is beond acidic to the discussion.

        Which I BET you can’t name without cutting & pasting.



    • mabramso

      The Senate is controlled by the Democrats. They could get it passed if they really wanted to, but they don’t. They would rather have a political wedge issue going into the midterm elections.

      • Stephen Barlow

        No it is NOT.

        41 RED votes AGAINST umemployment, AGAINST VEteran’s Health care, AGAINST Veterans Education, AGAINST Veteran’s Jobs bills…

        THE minority rules in YOUR America mab

        • Layla

          Sorry, Stephen but you cannot call people stupid while you yourself do not realize that the Dems control the Senate. You don’t get a pass on that one, nor do you get to make up facts.

          • Stephen Barlow

            Having the MAJORITY, and CONTROLLING what is passed for signature into law are TWO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS!

            Don’t believe Me? You are a single Mom, picking up your 3 kids and their 6 friends in a minivan during Rush Hour AFTER your boss gave you the choice of keeping you job or hitting your knees and blowing him every day.
            The kids wanna stop at McDonald’s. The 9-1 MAJORITY… the Minority of One (MOM) says NO. The MINORITY (Republicans with 42 NO NO NO NO NO NO NO votes!!!) is in CONTROL!

            I understand what you are READING, but you MISSED what I was SAYING with those words.

            WHERE did I call anyone stupid? I DID point out HOW they were wrong.

          • mabramso

            A complete strawman argument. We have laws that protect the Mom quite well.

          • Stephen Barlow

            Laws that pay her as much as her dead beat ex at the same job?

            LFunny how you are incapable of refuting the point with ANYTHING resembling a point.

            How strawman Republican of you.

          • mabramso

            How funny that you haven’t made a point to refute. All you do is rant, and it isn’t even clear what you are talking about. And like a typical blue kool-aid drinker, since you can’t say anything intelligent, you resort to petty name-calling. Sad, really.

          • Stephen Barlow

            I made a point, backed it with data and a suorce and you abdicated the conversation to blab a GOP rag plagiarized from some other mezzozoic mental patient you met @ the meth clinic you frequent for your fixes you drug addled fungus of a post human waste product.

            THAT was a rant.


            “Having the MAJORITY, and CONTROLLING what is passed for signature into law are TWO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS!

            Don’t believe Me? You are a single Mom, picking up your 3 kids and their 6 friends in a minivan during Rush Hour AFTER your boss gave you the choice of keeping you job or hitting your knees and blowing him every day.
            The kids wanna stop at McDonald’s. The 9-1 MAJORITY… the Minority of One (MOM) says NO. The MINORITY (Republicans with 42 NO NO NO NO NO NO NO votes!!!) is in CONTROL!

            I understand what you are READING, but you MISSED what I was SAYING with those words.

            WHERE did I call anyone stupid? I DID point out HOW they were wrong.”

            Was what you lack a single ball hair to refute.

            I called you names in the rant. Names THAT DEFINE YOU AND EXPLAIN YOU mabbie.

          • mabramso

            You made up some hypothetical situation with no names and no sources. And you still can’t put two coherent sentences together without being insulting, which no one cares about — I certainly don’t. It’s rather pathetic, actually.

          • Stephen Barlow

            Hypotheticals that accurately describe a concept are not ABOUT THE NAMES. They are ABOUT THE CONCEPTS. A concept you are devoid of ability to grasp.

          • mabramso

            A hypothetical that you make up to suit your own preconceived political assumptions is certainly not truth. Now, if you can actually cite a bona fide example of such a situation in which current law is inadequate, that would be different. If you can’t. then it’s EXACTLY the definition of a strawman argument, “a concept you are devoid of ability to grasp”.

          • Stephen Barlow

            Truth is truth, any way you wanna jerk your worm DENYING IT.

        • mabramso

          The Dems could have EASILY attached the UI extension or any of these other budgetary items to one of their budget bills — which only require 50 votes to pass, not 60 — can’t filibuster a budget bill.

          Or they could easily pass the UI extension, for example, by coming up with the $85 billion or so in budget cuts elsewhere that the GOP has asked for. But they won’t because they would rather blame the GOP.

          • Stephen Barlow

            It IS true that using a ‘Resolution’ (as Bush did to change America into the Soviet Union) which only requires 51 to pass would be possible, but Obama has stated he wants all legislation permanent. (DAMN FOOL!!!)

            The Tax Cuts Bush crippled 95% of America with to fund the WAR and the 1% were RESOLUTIONs. They have a maximum of 10 years duration (Hence “Continuing Resolution budgeting).

            But in the present REALITY, a 60 vote MAJORITY is a REQUIREMENT to avoid a BILL KILLING FILIBUSTER.

            Reid screwed the Nation waiting more than 90 days to END the Filibuster in the Senate.

            THIS is WHY geezers should be discriminated against in Government.

            Reid and McConnell suffer the same disease, Generational ignorance. BOTH have ZERO clue what today’s 20-40 YO’s are facing and they are allowed to make laws that last 30 -50 years when common sense says end them.

            75-100 years for CIVLI RIGHTS.
            Women STILL don’t get equality and not a possibility of it for the last 42 years…

            Gay rights…
            Vereran’s Benefits…
            LIVING WAGES..
            IMMIGRATION…Today’s leaders were the new recruits when these battles were fought in the 70’s… NOW, they are planning on sabotaging people who will suffer another HALF CENTURY, long after they are DEAD!!!!

            Why let ANYONE over 50 make a decison for 310 million people? Because there has been PRECIOUS LITTLE WISDOM exerted in the Capitol in the LAST 50 YEARS!

            But seriously, FORTY ONE votes KILLS a common sense bill. These are the same people who committed Treason and Sedition in organizing the failure of the Government from Elected positions.

          • mabramso

            I LOVE the filibuster! It has saved this nation many times from stupid and terrible legislation!

            And your tendency for exaggeration convinces no one.

  • docb

    Of course the gopbags are touting BS as progress What more do they have!

    Deceitful idiots!

  • Stephen Barlow

    $400 Milion annually for highways? Why that’s the FOOD STAMP SAVINGS.
    $5.7 Billion to work on levees and ports? That would be how much was saved not extending unemployment benefits for a year or so.

    WHY is the DOD budget STILL ONE TRILLION DOLLARS? (When you include ALL the Intelligence funding, the TSA, Homeland Security, and Border protection and Customs enforcement)

    WITHOUT A SINGLE CUT since Clinton. Just more tax and spend WAR!!!

    hoo ray. Boehner passes one bill this year before the election.

    THAT IN ITSELF should be cause for a complete rout of Republicans from both sides of the Capitol. But YOU, the American voter, are too stupid en masse`, to admit your stupidity in 2010.

    The cymbols for the parties are reversed. The JACKASSES are the REDS, the immovable objects are the DEMS, who never manage to get what needs doing done.

    • Layla

      Not to worry. If the people are successful, BOTH sides are going to be voted out. There was no stupidity in 2010, we just didn’t take it far enough. We have to put real people back in the Congress who know how difficult they are making it for families to live.

      • Stephen Barlow

        IF the people were smart, they would pick representation via lottery, like jury duty. Term limits would allow NO CAREER politicians in the same job. I would like to see a 7 year Presidency, 2 terms of 5 yr in the Senate and 3 terms of 3 years in the house. The whole senate and the whole House get replaced in 1/2 of a generation, and each generation has 2.5 Presidents,

        I would also TAX lobbying @ 250%. Chamber of Commerce BUYS 100 MIL in special treatment, they PAY $250 Million into the Treasury, but ONLY for use on issues they did NOT lobby on. (No Defense Contractors tax gets spent on the DOD)

        If a criminal harms a victim, the sentence should be completely up to the victim. Imagine the rape #’s dropping to nothing when the rapist KNOWS his victim has Carte Blanche in punishment. imagine the integrity in the investment banks when banker’s realize their OWN money can ALL be claimed for the slightest fraud.

  • Stephen Barlow

    OH COOL!!!! I can actually DELETE the entire existence of a stalker, a pest and a liar. WOW!

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