As a registered federal lobbyist I’m often asked to describe my job. Some days I describe it as an advocate; other days as an educator. I’ve also been known to liken it to being a translator or cruise director, but this past month it has felt a lot like being a host of Talk Soup. You see, I attend countless Congressional hearings and markups and spend endless hours watching House and Senate floor debate on C-SPAN. To borrow a phrase from Greg Kinnear, I watch it so you don’t have to. In that spirit, and because I am long over due on providing a blog post to TheLeveeWasDry.Com, here are the highlights from the House debate on the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) Energy & Water Appropriations bill.
In mid-June, the U.S. House of Representatives cleared the first Minibus appropriations package, HR 2740. The four-bill package included the FY20 Energy & Water Appropriations bill which funds the civil works program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). The House Appropriations Committee, under a new democratic majority, continues the longstanding bi-partisan support for the Corps and its mission by proposing a record level of funding for the Corps. In total the House proposes to fund the Corps at $7.36B, which is an increase of $357M over the FY19 enacted level and an increase of $2.53B over the President’s FY20 budget proposal.
However, as is often the case in the Nation’s Capitol, Minibus 1 was a partisan affair and it passed with only democratic votes. Due to a lack of a top line budget agreement for all FY20 appropriations bills, not a single Republican voted in favor of the package; and the same thing happened about a week later when the House passed Minibus 2. The White House and Senate leadership have been meeting regularly to nail down a budget agreement, but so far that agreement remains elusive and many are predicting that we may not see an agreement until the end of the year. That’s not unusual given that the last two-year budget agreement covering FY17 and FY18 wasn’t reached until February of 2018. However, until this larger issue gets ironed out the FY20 appropriations cycle will be impacted and the threat of sequestration looms.
Here’s where the “Must See TV” moments come in. During floor consideration of Minibus 1, dozens of amendments were considered for the Energy & Water division of the bill. But there are two amendments that stand out as they capture the bigger picture issues regarding the future of the Corps and a potential tool to help with the Corps revolutionize effort.
CORPS REORG – Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana (R) offered an amendment to allow funds to be used on an effort to study whether the Corps should be moved out of the Department of Defense (DoD) and into another agency or agencies. This concept was included in a broader reorganization effort that was proposed by the Office of Management and Budget last July. In Congressional circles, the proposal promptly fell flat. In fact, the FY19 Omnibus Appropriations bill carried very strong language prohibiting any further action on this plan to move the Corps out of DoD. Rep. Graves, given his previous role as a non-federal sponsor on a massive Corps project in his home state, is very savy when it comes to the Corps. His experience also makes him the most outspoken Congressional critic of the Corps, so it was no surprise that he would offer this amendment. Opposition to his amendment was addressed by both the Chairwoman, Marcy Kaptur of Wisconsin (D), and Ranking Member, Mike Simpson of Idaho (R), of the House Energy & Water Appropriations subcommittee. Overall Kaptur and Simpson expressed strong support for the Corps and its workforce while acknowledging that some of the challenges the Corps faces are a creation of Congress, and that those challenges are further exacerbated by OMB. The amendment failed 162-269 with 12 Democrats crossing the aisle to vote with Graves. Graves may have lost this battle, but he hasn’t yet lost the war.
SEC 1043 PILOT PROJECTS – Freshman Representative Harley Rouda of California (D) led an effort to raise the profile of the Section 1043 pilot project initiative. Originally authorized in WRDA 2016 and extended in WRDA 2018, this section was created to allow the Corps to develop the ability to provide non-federal sponsors with federal funds to build Corps projects, essentially setting up a grant-like structure. While this proposal was supported at the authorizing level, it has never been explicitly funded through the appropriations process. But it has caught the eye of the folks over at OMB and the Administration took it upon themselves to designate two projects in the FY18 Corps work plan to be eligible for Section 1043, and also proposed funding for the program in their FY20 budget proposal. While the House FY20 bill does not specifically fund Section 1043, it does set up a work plan process for FY20 so it could be possible that we see OMB designate projects for this authority in a forthcoming work plan like they did in FY18. Regardless, Rep. Rouda’s amendment was designed to draw attention to the need to reauthorize this provision in the next WRDA bill. Rep. Rouda is a member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee which has jurisdiction over WRDA, so you can expect that he’ll continue to advance these efforts through authorizing channels. The amendment was consider as part of en bloc #4, which means it was grouped together with several other non-controversial amendments and no specific debate was held on the amendment. The en bloc amendment was adopted. One final piece on Section 1043: the Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) for Minibus 1 contained a veto threat by the President. There are several reasons for the threat, including a lack of funding for Section 1043. The Administration views Section 1043 as a viable way to help clear out the Corps $98 billion backlog and like it or not, OMB will have the final say on a Corps FY20 work plan.
Thanks for reading. And just remember, I watch so you don’t have to!
Julie Minerva is a Washington, DC based infrastructure advocate who specializes in Civil Works and all things related to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can find her at: firstname.lastname@example.org