Congress Inaction (... and Other Good News?)

The first session of the 109th Congress concluded on December 22, 2005. In the course of one year, 2,616 bills were introduced in the Senate and another 5,703 in the House, with only 147 of these bills actually being enacted into law.

The first session of the 109th Congress concluded on December 22, 2005. In the course of one year, 2,616 bills were introduced in the Senate and another 5,703 in the House, with only 147 of these bills actually being enacted into law. That’s a 99.3% failure rate (or a 99.3% success rate, depending on how you measure “success” when it comes to viewing our government in action).

As one of the hundreds of thousands of lobbyists in the nation’s capital - not to be associated with the likes of Jack Abramoff - I have the distinct privilege of perusing the Congressional Record each day in search of any new proposal that might impact the water and wastewater industry, and more specifically, the equipment manufacturers that our Association represents. This year alone, we have monitored and reported on over 60 different legislative proposals affecting our membership in one form or another.

It’s amazing some of the things our Nation’s legislators concern themselves with on any given day. Take July 14th, my birthday, for instance. On the day when all of France was celebrating Bastille Day - and my birth of several years ago - Congress was introducing legislation to • provide more rigorous requirements with respect to ethics and lobbying (wonder why?) • establish the Sunset Commission to review and maximize the performance of all Federal agencies and programs (that’s funny) • prohibit the importation and shipment of certain species of carp (that’s serious) • and suspend temporarily the duty on erasers, nail clippers, and electrically-operated pencil sharpeners (now we’re finally getting down to the business of the people!).

All kidding aside, July 14th was also the day that Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) introduced the Water Infrastructure Financing Act (S. 1400). This bill authorizes $35 billion for the clean water and drinking water state revolving fund (SRF) programs over a five-year period, providing low-interest loans to communities to construct wastewater treatment facilities and fund projects to improve the quality of drinking water. It also allows for extended repayment terms and subsidies for disadvantaged communities. The bill further authorizes $1.5 billion in grants to remedy sewage overflows; another $1.5 billion in grants to help small public water systems address the cost of complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act; and $100 million in grants to research and develop innovative and alternative technologies. It passed out of committee but failed to reach the Senate floor due to controversies over a Davis-Bacon prevailing wages provision.

Unfortunately, the House failed to act in due course by offering a companion bill. Instead, House Water Resources Subcommittee Chairman John Duncan (R-TN) introduced the Clean Water Trust Fund Act of 2005 (H.R. 4560) on December 15. Unlike the Senate bill which serves to build up the SRF programs, H.R. 4560 would place these programs under the aegis of a national trust fund, with $4.5 billion being made available annually in the form of grants and only $1.5 billion in the form of loans.

Our Association has argued from the start that grants should only be made available to disadvantaged communities that are unable to raise their rates to meet their local needs and that federal subsidies, in the form of a massive new grant program, would only serve to undermine the corpus of the SRF programs whose purpose is to have a perpetual source of low-interest loans available to communities to meet future water and wastewater needs. Since the recipient must return the principle, it forces management practices that do not breed dependence on the government.

Not surprisingly, H.R. 4560 fails to identify a source of revenue to capitalize this national trust fund. An earlier proposal to impose a $.05 tax on bottled beverages was met with significant and compelling resistance. Instead, the bill leaves it up to the Administration (EPA) to recommend an “equitable system of user fees” to fund it. A curious call given the Administration’s opposition to new taxes and EPA’s push for full cost pricing of water and wastewater services.

So the debate will continue into the second session of the 109th Congress on how our country is going to deal with the challenge of replacing aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. With the House and Senate going in different directions, it is highly unlikely that any viable resolution will be coming forth from our legislative branch.

Another creative solution was recently offered by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK). On December 21, he introduced the Small System Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005 (S. 2161) which proposes that no national primary drinking water regulation be enforced unless sufficient funds are available to assist each public water system in meeting the regulation. Does that imply that unless the Federal government bails out a community, the quality and safety of their drinking water can go down the toilet? (Forgive the pun!) Need I mention that the Federal government is US, the taxpayers?

Inevitably, whether we pay for it through taxes or user fees, the end user will ultimately have to bear the full burden of the costs of providing water and wastewater services. The sooner we educate the consumer on what these costs entail and the true value they receive for services rendered, the sooner they will accept full cost of service rates and the better off we will all be.

About the author:

Dawn Kristof is president of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association. WWEMA has operated for 98 years as a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit trade organization representing the interests of companies that serve the water and wastewater industry.

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