View from the Levee: Take the Deal, Fool

Congress is so tuckered out from its “heavy lifting” that it can’t even consider a deal where private industry pays for half of the improvements on the nation’s waterways.

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One sure sign of the coming apocalypse: When bigwigs of one industry lock arms and go to Congress en masse to ask for a 50 percent increase in user fees they pay and are denied the tax increase by House leaders.

That’s exactly what happened earlier this year when commodity carriers on the nation’s busy inland waterways went to Congress to ask that the user fee they pay on fuel—currently 20-cents per gallon—be increased to 30-cents per gallon.

Each year the user fee raises $80 million to $90 million for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, money ticketed to maintain or improve infrastructure—locks, dams, ports—on the nation’s vast river system.           

And each year, the fund, because of the age of almost every lock, dam and road in the system, comes up short of the required updates to keep it flowing smoothly, Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers Cargill and past chairman of the Waterways Council, told waterway operators, farm group representatives and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials last week in Chicago.

But there’s a rub.

The Waterways Trust Fund is a matching fund. That means for every $1 raised by waterway users taxing themselves, Congress kicks in a $1. As such, if the carrier’s user fee system generates $45 million more because of a fee increase, Congress would need put another $45 million into the maintenance pot.

And Congress, this Congress, has no interest in any increase for anything.

In fact, in 27 visits to Capitol Hill to push for the fee increase and matching commitment, Calhoun related to the group, he got zip. Three separate Congressional staffers used the same language to send him home empty-handed; a fee increase, “any fee increase,” would be “heavy lifting” under the current budget rules.

“It’s not a heavy lift at all,” Calhoun explained, according to news reports of the Chicago meeting.

“I don’t know what these people are so tired from lifting anyway,” he went on, “because we haven’t had much legislation come out of Congress in the last couple years so they should be fresh and ready to lift.”

They should be, yet most of the limited lifting done in Congress this session involves either carving knives or brickbats. Indeed, according to an early June count by the National Journal, this current Congress had passed only 13 laws in all of 2013.

Thirteen.

Not only is the number unimpressive, so are many of the laws. Take the “District of Columbia Chief Financial Officer Vacancy Act.” Go ahead and take it; truly, no one will notice.

Or how about the “Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013”?

That was a real test of legislating skill, eh? After all, which congressman or senator you know wants to stand in line—like an average citizen—for two hours to take a 45-minute flight from Chicago to Peoria? Not one. Who knew?

Some of the 13 laws that passed were important. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 is one. But it took months of Congressional negotiations just to reauthorize a law that nearly everyone in America already agreed upon.

The legislative success rate since June, however, has not improved.

On July 31, for example, House leaders pulled their $44 billion transportation-housing bill moments ahead of a floor vote because it faced an embarrassing defeat. Republican members abandoned it because, they said, its spending cuts—$4.4 billion slashed from last year’s already shrunken $48.4 billion in spending—were too deep.

After the bill’s break-neck yanking, the chairman of the committee responsible for it, Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky-5th, complained that the overall budget plan for discretionary spending by Congressional Republicans was “unrealistic and ill-conceived.”

Golly, that sounds as though someone on Capitol Hill finally discovered what four out of five Americans already know: The nation badly needs to fix its aging interstates, rural roads, bridges, inland waterways, ports and rail lines.

And here’s a hint of something else the nation knows: If a group of citizens go to Congress and offers to go 50/50 on the fix-up, take the deal, fool.

Agriculture journalist Alan Guebert lives in central Illinois.

 

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