Congress Departs DC After Passing Major Water Bill, Punting on Spending and Energy

The 114th Congress is officially in the history books. Both the House and the Senate departed Washington for the final time last week.

After returning to Capitol Hill following the election for the “lame duck” session, Congress only had one must-pass item on its agenda: approval of a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. However, legislators also approved a major water infrastructure package and debated several planning-related bills.

Hopes of finalizing FY 2017 spending during the lame duck session dissipated shortly after the election when President-elect Donald Trump indicated to lawmakers that he preferred they wait until after his inauguration to complete FY 2017 spending, making the passage of a second continuing resolution (CR) necessary.

Appropriators debated for weeks the length of a CR, but early last week they finally settled on April 28, 2017, to allow the Senate ample floor time early in the year to work on presidential cabinet nominations.

Last Tuesday, the text of a continuing resolution was introduced that included additional emergency funding for Flint, Michigan; Hurricane Matthew; and Louisiana flooding. The House approved the bill on Thursday by a vote of 326–96, sending the bill to the Senate with only a single day to approve it before a government shutdown would be triggered. Senate procedures require unanimous consent of senators to expedite passage of legislation, and the question for much of that day was whether Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would hold up the bill due to an issue with coal miner health care. Ultimately, Sen. Machin backed down, and the CR was approved by 64–36 with just 45 minutes to spare.

HOME and CDBG

The CR provides FY 2016-level funding through late April of next year. The CR has many drawbacks: HOME and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding is typically not awarded until a final bill is in place, and it short-changes transportation spending, which is set to receive a $2.4 billion increase in FY 2017 from the FAST Act.

This creates much uncertainty in communities, as they don’t know when or how much funding they’ll be receiving from the federal government for critical infrastructure projects.

Water

Lawmakers also considered several planning-related provisions during the lame duck. The first was a major water infrastructure package, initially referred to as the Water Resourced Development Act (WRDA) but changed at the last minute to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act.

In addition to authorizing water infrastructure projects carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers around the country, WIIN includes provisions to improve water quality around the country and promote sustainability and green infrastructure. The bill was the last major piece of legislation voted on by the 114th Congress, and it passed 78–21.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

A major energy reform bill that included language to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) fell short of final passage in the 114th Congress. Both the House and Senate had passed their own energy reform bills, but major differences between chambers’ versions ultimately stymied final passage. 

LWCF, a program that funds land acquisition, planning, and development for national, state, and local parks, expired in September 2015. At the end of 2015, Congress passed a short-term extension, authorizing LWCF through 2018 to give them some time to come to an agreement on how to update the law and reauthorize it on a longer-term basis.

The LWCF reauthorization included in the Senate version of the energy reform bill took some steps toward increasing equity for the State Assistance program under LWCF, which provides dollars for state and local parks and recreation. 

Unfortunately, however, it did not include language to provide increased funding for urban and community parks, which provide critical health, economic, social, and environmental benefits to communities but have been historically underfunded at the federal level.

In the next Congress, lawmakers must continue to work to find a long-term solution to reauthorize LWCF before it once again expires. Any reauthorization, however, should ensure equitable funding for State Assistance and specifically increase investment in urban and community parks.

Digital Coast Act

Finally, Congress came closer than ever before to passing the Digital Coast Act. This legislation would formally create the Digital Coast Program under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which collects, consolidates, and disseminates coastal data to help planners working on hazard mitigation and resiliency in coastal communities.

The Digital Coast Act passed the Senate in early December but it fell short of making it to the floor of the House for final passage before the House adjourned for the year. However, as part of the Digital Coast Partnership, APA will leverage the exciting momentum this bipartisan legislation gained earlier this month and continue to advocate for the program’s legislative authorization in the next Congress.

Top image: U.S. Capitol dome. Photo in the public domain.


About the Authors
Kirsten Holland is policy associate and Tess Hembree is policy manager at Advocacy Associates.

December 14, 2016

By Kirsten Holland, Tess Hembree