House passes WRDA, White House not supportive

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Let's try this again•passing locks and dam restoration legislation in Congress. Last year the House and Senate passed their own versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), only to have time run out before the lame duck session. They're again working hard to get it approved, after a seven-year hiatus, despite White House objections to the bill.

The House overwhelming passed their version Thursday night by a margin of 394 to 25. No surprise considering Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., said the bill's projects would affect 300 of 435 congressional districts.

This legislation will provide funding for construction of seven new locks and other critical improvements on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. In addition, it includes funding for many ecosystem restoration projects along the rivers.

"Corn growers have tirelessly worked for more than a decade to see this legislation become reality," said Ken McCauley, National Corn Growers Association president. "An upgraded system is urgently needed to ensure U.S. farmers can efficiently move their crops to market and stay competitive in the international marketplace. The bill also would create a new ecosystem restoration program for the UpperMississippiRiver Basin that would significantly enhance the natural resources of the region."

American Soybean Association President Rick Ostlie, a soybean producer from Northwood, N.D, added, "With over 75% of U.S. soybean exports moving to world ports via the upper Mississippi and Illinois River systems, modern and efficient waterways and ports are essential to our economic well-being and international competitiveness."

Ports and waterways contribute $718 billion to the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) while ensuring domestic and international trade opportunities and safe, low-cost, eco-friendly transportation, ASA said. Navigation on the upper Mississippi and IllinoisRivers supports over 400,000 jobs, including 90,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs.

"While U.S. waterways remain the most economical and environmentally-friendly way to move U.S. soybeans to foreign and domestic markets, over 50% of our locks and dams have aged beyond their life cycle and many are crumbling," Ostlie said. "Many are unable to handle today's barges that are twice as long as when the system was built in the 1930s. Many barges must be split and sent through in two separate sections causing delays which result in higher transportation costs, lower commodity prices and fewer international sales for U.S. farmers."

WRDA, which used to be reauthorized about every two years, has not been reauthorized since 2000.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee considered and approved its version of WRDA, which also includes lock and dam modernization on the Upper Mississippi and IllinoisRivers. This project authorization is largely based on what House and Senate staff had tentatively agreed to in the staff "conference" discussions last year. EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., recently said the Senate could vote on the bill before the May recess.

Wednesday the Bush Administration released a statement opposing the House WRDA bill. The CBO estimates the bill would cost about $6.7 billion between 2008 and 2012 and another $6.5 billion over the 10 years after 2012, totaling roughly $13.2 billion.

The White House estimates are higher than CBO. A White House Statement of Administration Policy regarding the legislation said the bill would increase the cost to the Federal government by 50% or more relative to the House-passed WRDA from the 109th Congress. The Administration estimates that it would cost at least $15 billion and possibly substantially more to implement the hundreds of new projects and programs that H.R. 1495 contains.

The bill would increase the Federal cost-share for many projects, authorize projects outside of the Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps) mission, and not ensure that projects yield high economic and environmental returns, the policy statement said.

"In a time of much-needed fiscal restraint, the additional spending in this bill is unacceptable," it went on to say.

In a letter to Congress, the administration listed its opposition to numerous provisions of the bill. However, the statement was silent on the provision authorizing construction of the locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, a release from NCGA pointed out.

Administration officials oppose House provisions establishing independent peer reviews of Army Corps of Engineers projects. The bill retains language from a 2005 House WRDA bill approved before the hurricanes to limit independent panels' reviews to technical information and limits the peer review to 180 days after the panel is established.

Will 2007 be the year for WRDA to finally the see the light of day? Chances are more likely this year without elections. However, the price tag continues to be a stumbling block as well as significant differences between Senate and House approaches to peer reviews.

I can guarantee you the staff at the major agricultural associations are working hard to see the bill come to life. But in the back of their minds, there certainly is a poor track record with WRDA.

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