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U.S. Congress finds cure for gridlock in water

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on infrastructure investment at PortMiami in Florida March 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on infrastructure investment at PortMiami in Florida March 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Fred Barbash and Caren Bohan

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

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

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

Pork it was not, members insisted, rejecting the old pejorative term in favor of "infrastructure" spending, and garnishing the title with another word, "reform," that's also in vogue.

Nor, by members' definition, were these earmarks, the pet projects inserted by individual members that have become taboo symbols of lavish Washington spending.

Whatever the jargon, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act was a reminder of the allure of traditional home-district spending and its healing power in an age of division.

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

For Georgia, there was an expansion of Savannah Harbor; for Florida, improvements to the ports of Jacksonville and Canaveral, not to mention the Everglades Restoration Plan.

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

Authorizations went to North Carolina, California, the Mississippi Coast, Maryland, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and the entire Great Lakes region.

In voting for the measure, small-government Tea Party faction members bucked conservative organizations, like the Heritage Foundation, that held sway over them during the October showdown that shutdown the government.

And liberal Democrats bucked environmentalists, who expressed concerns about provisions designed to speed up the environmental impact assessments that sometimes slow down water projects.

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

"For all the hand wringing about the inability of Republicans and Democrats to get along in Washington, there is definitely one area in which they continue to get along and that is parochial projects," said Tad DeHaven, a former Capitol Hill policy 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 they would support it because of its bipartisan sponsorship, "something all too rare in Washington these days," said Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat of Connecticut. "I am proud to say that this bill reflects the bipartisan action that my constituents expect from Congress."

But Americans in search of a do-something Congress should not get their hopes up.

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

Most vote yes, issue a press release and if possible, go down to the jetty or the dam for a photo op. "The Peoria Lock and Dam is becoming a popular place for federal legislators to conduct news conferences," the Pekin Times reported in Illinois over the weekend after the third visit from a member of Congress in a few months.

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

Water bills are "not inherently" partisan, said Patrick Griffin, a former White House aide and now associate director for the Center for Congressional and Presidential studies at American University.

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

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

PROJECTS ALREADY BACKLOGGED

The Army Corps of Engineers, for which the money was authorized, already has a $60 billion construction backlog, as a skeptical White House pointed out in its response to the bill's passage. Indeed, the bill passed by the House deauthorized dozens of projects that had languished for years, enabling House conservatives to say they were offsetting the cost of the new projects by sacrificing the old, justification for adding the word "reform" to the title of the bill.

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

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

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

Still, the measure brought back nostalgic glimpses of the way Congress used to operate, for better or worse, in the days when 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 to decide where money is spent, earmarks stand condemned, especially by conservatives, as a corrupting contribution to exploding deficits.

THE UNEARMARK BILL

Representative Daniel Webster of Florida contrasted this water bill with the one portrayed in the movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," about a naive new member who fights against a dam, and the system.

Unlike the water bill in the movie, said Webster, these were not "pet projects" but rather taken from a list provided by the Army 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 on pork barrel spending."

Only one member, Democrat Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, had the 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 want one."

Democratic Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, one of the three lawmakers to vote against the bill, also felt left out. It failed to include reauthorization for a flood-control project in Roseau, Minnesota, said a spokeswoman.

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

Their show of force gave them a rare victory over the new breed of small-government ideological lobbying group, like Americans for Prosperity, which called it a "giant spending bill" and the Heritage Foundation, which condemned the measure as "an abyss of spending."

Progressive Democrats came out in force to support the bill as well, despite the concerns of environmental organizations about provisions designed to speed up time consuming environmental reviews required for water projects.

"This is something Congress has done many times in the past, 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 shut down the government earlier in October and nearly risked a default.

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

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

In the aftermath of the government shutdown, said American University's Griffin, there may be slightly more inclination to cooperate.

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

(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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