Ports: Earmark ban sinking projects

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"Historically, those were line item bills in water resources bill or whatever those projects [were]," Nagle continued. "Under the earmark moratorium, they would be considered earmarks. So we think there needs to be a process."

Nagle said that he was not calling for lawmakers to exempt ports from the earmark ban that was enacted when Republicans took control of the House in 2010.

Instead, he said Congress should identify new ways to identify projects that would receive funding under a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which is the measure that traditionally authorizes spending on specific improvement projects for water infrastructure in the U.S.

"The Senate developed kind of a two-year scenario where they would provide some additional authorization for the Secretary of the Army to be able to identify and advance projects," he said.  "The House is looking at how they might address that. I think there are different mechanism to do it that would not be specifically exempting these kinds of projects."

Nagle said it was important for Congress to address the earmark ban's definition, saying it has been construed too broadly.

"There is a distinction between, I think, what the real intent of the earmark ban was in terms of a congressperson putting in a project for say XYZ museum in the middle of the night that had no federal role or no cost-benefit analysis, versus a project like improving a federal navigation channel that's gone through multiple studies," he said. 

"The reality is right now the earmark moratorium definition is broad enough that it captures both of those," Nagle continued.
 
Lawmakers in the House are scheduled to begin considering a new version of the water resources bill that was last approved in 2008 when they return from recess next month.

A version of the bill was approved earlier this year by the Senate, but GOP leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee complained that the upper chamber's version of the bill gave too much to select projects to the Obama administration because it delegated the authority to the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers.

The WRDA bill does not include specific funding for water infrastructure improvement projects, authorizing only the spending that is traditionally later approved by the committees with jurisdiction over the issues the projects involve.

The last water bill that was approved by Congress was passed over a veto from former President George W. Bush.

Nagle said on Tuesday that he was "very confident" that the House would be able to pass a new WRDA, despite the chamber's difficulties with passing a transportation and housing bill last month.

Nagle called for the final version of the measure to include language that requires Congress to spend money that is collected from taxes on shippers for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for port improvements. Advocates have complained that money that is collected for harbor maintenance has been used to plug holes in other areas of the federal budget in recent years.

Nagle said he also hoped to see the new WRDA bill include regulatory streamlining that is similar to the surface transportation bill that was passed by Congress in 2012.