Bad Bill From a Good Congressman - Washington Insider
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SECTION: Washington Insider

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Bad Bill From a Good Congressman


Article Date: 11-01-2007
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

AED has a great working relationship with Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), but we're concerned about his Clean Water Restoration Act.

For more than three decades, he's been one of the leading advocates in Congress for increased infrastructure investment. Since taking over the chairmanship of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee earlier this year, Oberstar has put his words into action. He's passed bills to beef up sewer and dam construction programs, launched an aggressive new initiative to rebuild bridges on the interstate highway system, and is already focusing his colleagues' attention on the 2009 highway reauthorization. Oberstar clearly understands the critical link between infrastructure, a healthy economy, good jobs, a cleaner environment, and a better quality of life for all Americans. That's why a bill he recently introduced has a lot of his long-time allies scratching their heads.

For more than 35 years, the Clean Water Act (CWA) has given the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers authority to regulate the "navigable waters" of the United States. While the Supreme Court has allowed the EPA and the Corps to regulate wetlands adjacent to navigable waters, in two recent decisions the Court has rejected other attempts by the agencies to further extend their authority in this area. Enter Oberstar. His Clean Water Restoration Act (H.R. 2421), which was introduced in May with more than 160 cosponsors, would dramatically expand the CWA and give the federal government jurisdiction over almost anything in the country that involves water.

The legislation would delete the term "navigable" from the CWA and replace it with the phrase "waters of the United States." The bill defines that to mean, "all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing..."

Prairie potholes?

The practical implications of the bill are enormous. It would give the EPA and the Corps virtually unlimited authority to regulate intrastate waters (i.e., waters that don't cross state lines and that have heretofore been entirely under state jurisdiction.) That's going to require a massive new investment of federal budget resources at a time when Congress is already digging in the couch cushions to find money to pay for existing programs.

The bill will impose new unfunded mandates on states by forcing them to apply federal water quality standards, effluent limitation guidelines, and Total Maximum Daily Loads to waters that were formerly under sole state control. Opponents of the bill are also concerned that it will pre-empt state and local authority over land and water use decisions, thereby upsetting the balance of state and federal power.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest concern to our industry, the legislation will almost certainly lead to increased delays in securing construction permits, thereby raising project costs and impeding economic development. Highway construction, commercial and residential development, farms, power plants, quarries, and mines will all be affected. Given that it can already take three years to permit a project and an estimated backlog of as many as 30,000 permit applications, we need less red tape, not more!

The outlook for the Clean Water Restoration Act is uncertain. A companion version of Oberstar's bill has been introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-MI) and has 20 cosponsors. Both bills have been referred to committee, but no formal action has been taken on either. AED, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Edison Electric Institute, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Mining Association, the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, the Associated General Contractors of America, and other leading associations are lobbying against the legislation.

With opposition that broad, it's hard to imagine the bills are going anywhere in this Congress. However, if Democrats expand their congressional majorities and reclaim the White House in next year's elections, the threat will grow dramatically.

Oberstar has done as much as anyone else on Capitol Hill over the last three decades to improve the quality of America's infrastructure. Unfortunately, his Clean Water Restoration Act would dramatically undermine new construction in the years to come. AED will continue to work with Oberstar and make sure he understands why so many of his friends are so concerned about this bill.

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Article Categories:  Public Policy