Document of the Week: White House Bill File on the 1986 WRDA Bill

October 20, 2016

During long Congressional recesses, ETW occasionally takes a week off to regroup, and this is one of those weeks. We will be back next week with more news and analysis.

Something to tide you over: as Congress prepares to negotiate a water resources authorization bill in the post-election lame-duck session, we are in the midst of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, which broke a decade-long logjam over the proper federal role in river and harbor maintenance and which created the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Tax.

The anniversary actually stretches out a bit – the House and Senate passed the conference report on the bill (H.R. 6, 99th Congress) 30 years ago this week, on October 17, 1986. (The votes were 329 to 11 in the House and 84 to 2 in the Senate.)

However, the enrolled bill was not actually presented to President Reagan until November 5 and was not signed into law until the very last day before it would become law on its own – November 17, 1986.

This week’s Eno Transportation Library Document of the Week is the White House’s enrolled bill file on the WRDA bill. (Document is for Eno members and ETW subscribers only.) As the White House was waiting for Congress to send up the formal paperwork, the Office of Management and Budget prepared a summary memo on October 25 summarizing the bill and recommending its signature.

The OMB memo sums up the long-developing problem:

Starting in the 1970’s, by which time most of the Nation’s cost-effective water resource infrastructure was in place and a growing need for project maintenance had developed, the nature and extent of the Federal role came increasingly into question. No major omnibus water project authorization bill has been enacted since 1970. Starting about a decade ago, and aggressively pursued by your Administration, a policy was promoted of requiring non-Federal interests to pay a greater and more equitable share of water resource project costs, and of requiring more payment during construction rather than afterwards. Such a policy is designed to eliminate marginal projects, reduce the scale of some projects, and to help stretch scarce Federal monies to cover the more deserving projects.

(Ed. Note: From President Nixon through President Obama, OMB’s position on Corps water projects tends to stay the same.)

The White House struck a deal in summer 1985 with Senate Republican leaders on new cost-sharing formulas for Corps projects (with an increased non-federal share), which also included tax increases on the end users of those projects – an 0.04 percent ad valorem tax on cargo loaded and unloaded at ports. These funds would be deposited in a new Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that would pay 40 percent of the harbor dredging costs previously paid exclusively by general federal revenues, and a doubling of the tax on diesel fuel used to tow barges was also employed to beef up receipts of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

The bill also authorized 300 new projects with a total cost of $16 billion, $9 billion of which would be the federal share.

The OMB memo also lays out the budget impact of the legislation:

Using reasonable assumptions on how many of the authorized projects and programs would receive appropriations, we estimate that H.R. 6 would generate outlays of $1.8 billion, for the period 1987-1991, versus the $1.0 billion assumed in the 1987 Budget for the Corps of Engineers water resource projects over that period (these outlays are net of the increased cost-sharing and user fees). The $800 million difference therefore represents added pressure for increased deficits. The actual outlays, however, are subject to the annual budget process, which should be able to hold them to acceptable levels.

In other words, the White House reserved the right to veto future appropriations bills actually providing the funding to implement the projects authorized in the WRDA bill if the total spending levels were too high in any particular year.

OMB Director Jim Miller closed with:

On balance the Congress has produced as good a bill as could be expected in this area. It includes both Administration-supporter harbor and inland waterway user fees, and increased water project cost-sharing by non-Federal interests. Also, some massive new programs in the House version of H.R. 6 have been dropped. The trade-off is full authorization of many water projects and programs that are of dubious economic or environmental benefit, or have been incompletely studied…even with the increased cost-sharing and user fees, pressure will mount on the appropriations side for project and program funding substantially higher than the 1987 Budget levels – especially in the out-years. We will need to deal vigorously with this pressure in the annual budget process.

The enrolled bill file also contains:

  • A White House staffing memo where key staff signed off on the recommendation that the President sign the bill into law (no less a conservative than Pat Buchanan had no objection to the signing).
  • A letter from the Corps of Engineers strongly supporting the bill.
  • An excerpt of the Corps’ section-by-section summary of the bill relating to the revenue and trust fund provisions of the bill. (We had a slow flatbed scanner with us at the Reagan Library and could not copy the whole summary.)
  • A draft signing statement prepared by the Corps of Engineers to be delivered by President Reagan.
  • A memo from White House Counsel Peter Wallison recommending that the President not issue the signing statement because it was not necessary. (The statement was not delivered.)
  • The White House press release announcing that the President had signed the bill into law.

The WRDA bill became Public Law 99-662 and was one of the last three laws enacted by the 99th Congress.

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