Shuster closing in on billion-dollar legislation

Just one hurdle remains before U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, can claim his broadest legislative victory yet: a bill that would authorize billions for waterway work across the country and, in its supporters’ words, create thousands of jobs while saving consumers money.

Shuster quickly received media attention for his success shepherding the bill – without the help of earmarks – to an easy 417-3 victory Oct. 23 in the House. That kind of landslide is normally reserved for resolutions to rename government buildings or to correct simple text errors.

But the bill’s next step, a conference with Senate appointees to iron out both chambers’ differences, could be fraught with possible disputes as legislators angle for projects back home.

“The last 10 yards are going to be the hardest,” Shuster said Friday of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, the first bill of its kind to emerge in six years.

While the name isn’t attention-grabbing, the recurring legislation has for decades provided money and approval for major federal waterway projects, from river locks and dams to major port overhauls. Money for Raystown Lake, for example, was authorized through a similar bill 50 years ago.

But over time, the Army Corps of Engineers, which carries out many such projects, developed a multibillion-dollar backlog as plans languished without approval or funding. Federal earmarks – the “pork” that had long garnered support for similar bills – was all-but banned after 2010.

In his first year as Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, Shuster secured more support than even he’d expected for a water bill

“The coin of the realm we trade in is our word,” Shuster said. “If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.”

In the end, his bill authorized $8 billion in waterway projects while deauthorizing several billion more. It would require a timely cost study and congressional approval for future water projects, ultimately giving Congress more say in the work process.

In interview comments and in a cartoon promotional video posted online, Shuster stressed that his bill would create jobs and lower costs at retail stores and supermarkets. Better ports and waterways, he said, would mean easier and cheaper transit for imported goods while opening more exports for American companies.

But the bill has had its detractors, too: Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks criticized the billions in authorizations, arguing that far more backlogged work must be canceled before new work can be approved.

The National Wildlife Federation questioned portions of the bill intended to speed the study-and-approval process. In a point-by-point analysis, the environmental group said the Corps of Engineers could rush work and ignore environmental impacts if incentives urged them to hurry the review process.

In the end, however, only three House members fought the bill, of whom two had specific hometown projects deauthorized, Shuster said.

Part of that support may derive from the bill’s inclusion of sought-after water projects in key states: While old-style earmarks aren’t permitted, the inclusion of upgrades to the Port of Savannah, for example, helped secure support from Georgia’s usually wary representatives.

“They’re not [normally] voting for much of anything,” he said of the state’s delegation.

The difference, Shuster said, is that this bill’s projects are thoroughly vetted and open to public review, while earmarks were inserted “in the dark of night” by secretive committees, regardless of engineering studies.

“Now people can see them in the light of day,” he said.

That hasn’t exempted the proposals from criticism. A provision up for debate adds $1.5 billion to a lock-and-dam system some have described as a pork project for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, who faces an upcoming election.

Shuster questioned the suggestion, noting that the project has sat partially finished for years, since long before the latest additions.

Some are expected to push for home projects left out of Shuster’s bill during the conference committee. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “This bill will not pass without Morganza,” a reference to an expensive levee system planned in her state.

“I’m confident that the Senate’s going to extract some changes from us,” Shuster said of the coming negotiations.

He’ll refuse to budge on provisions that ensure Congress has power over future waterway spending, he said, arguing that presidency has gradually secured too much of the Legislature’s “power of the purse.”

If the bill passes largely unscathed and reaches President Barack Obama’s signature, it could become an important feather in Shuster’s cap.

He has already expressed an interest in passing similar bills every two years, if possible, and said he’s now working on a much larger proposal to fund highways.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.