The 2016 election cycle, officially kicked off by the Presidential primaries on Feb. 1, was supposed to result in a slow legislative year. By most standards, 2016 was an unproductive year for Congress, yet NUCA’s priorities received substantial attention and won significant victories, despite sparse action in the House and Senate.
To kick the year off with a bang, Congress passed legislation to overturn the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule that will substantially expand the definition of wetlands under the Clean Water Act. This legislation was vetoed by President Obama, but has been halted by the courts while several states sue the government to block it. NUCA has been a vocal opponent of the rule and supportive of state litigation trying to stop it in court. The rule’s implementation will hurt any NUCA member or infrastructure project in or around wetlands by subjecting the project, unlike previously, to significant bureaucratic requirements, including environmental studies which have proven to drastically slow down project construction and delivery.
In January and February, as Presidential candidates fought for support in the early primary contests, NUCA and the Clean Water Council (CWC) were laying the foundation for significant action in the budgetary process. President Obama published his last proposed budget in early February which was, to the infrastructure community at least, deceptive and misleading to proponents of infrastructure. While one hand touted a $158 million increase to the Drinking Water SRF, the other deeply cut $257 million from the net State Revolving Funds (SRF) allocations. Prior to the budget’s release, and empowered by it, NUCA and the CWC partnered with lawmakers to oppose cuts and promote increases in appropriations levels. NUCA and CWC members met with every appropriator and committee staff to advocate the job creation, economic and public health benefits of increasing SRF appropriations. As a result, NUCA and the CWC secured commitments from numerous appropriators to request increases in the EPA’s SRF appropriation accounts.
When both chambers released their Interior and Environment Appropriations bills, NUCA had reason to be proud of its efforts, but not complacent with the results. The House version called for a net cut of the SRF programs by $186 million, but $71 million above the President’s proposal, and an increase to the Drinking Water SRF of more than $207 million, or more than $50 million more than the President’s proposal. In the Senate, our efforts were more effective. The Senate proposed a net increase of $113 million over last year’s levels. In part by NUCA and the CWC’s efforts, 100 Democratic House members signed a letter to the House Appropriations Committee requesting SRF funds be doubled to $4 billion. We knew going into this process that these bills were benchmarks rather than legislative possibilities. Congress hasn’t completed the full budget process since the 1990s and has passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) — that is legislation to simply extend current levels — for at least the last four years, before negotiating minor spending alterations. The CR passed in late September and should be viewed as the second best likely option, behind passing the Senate bill, and a NUCA legislative win.
The spring was a busy season for NUCA’s government affairs. In addition to the Presidential primary season being in full swing, March brought the release of OSHA’s final rule regulating exposure to silica dust on the jobsite. For several years, NUCA and coalition partners in the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) had been fighting this rule and trying to work with OSHA to make this rule realistic. While the final rule did take some of our suggestions, it remains a significant burden to employers and the infrastructure community. The rule would require contractors to implement standards and practices to mitigate employees’ exposure to silica dust that are unrealistic, expensive and complicated. NUCA, as a part of the CISC, has filed suit in federal court in an attempt to block this rule and send it back to OSHA for, at least, major revisions if not complete scrapping. More than 100 NUCA members sent letters of support to Congress when Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) proposed an amendment to the Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Act to deny funding for this rule.
In April, the Senate introduced and reported out of committee its version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), and it reads like a wish list for NUCA priorities: $1.4 billion for rural and disadvantaged communities to repair and replace water infrastructure; $300 million in new funding for replacing lead water pipes; $1.8 billion for combined sewer overflow, sanitary sewer or storm water overflow mitigation; $100 million in new funding for emergency drinking water project construction; $70 million for the WIFIA water infrastructure investment fund (OMB estimates this will provide $4.2 billion in new infrastructure project financing; and the creation of a Water Infrastructure Trust Fund. In addition to those, this version of WRDA would include the authorization of 25 new water infrastructure, navigation, treatment and wetland restoration projects. Needless to say, it would be a great day for the water infrastructure construction industry when this legislation becomes law.
In May, NUCA held its annual Washington Summit. Relocating into the District of Columbia, the Summit was the most successful advocacy event since I joined NUCA four years ago. Attendees heard from former Representative and BIPAC (Business Industry Political Action Committee) chairman Jim Gerlach about the political landscape in advance of the election; Bradford Hammock, who is representing NUCA and the CISC in our legal suit against OSHA’s Silica rule; and Rep. Sam Graves, who is expected to be the next House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman. After a long, but enlightening day of information, NUCA took over center field of Nationals Park to watch a baseball game.
During the Washington Summit, NUCA members advocated on behalf of robust federal investment in infrastructure, creating a modern and able workforce through education and training opportunities and curbing devastating regulations that harm businesses, the industry and the country’s economy.
Our lobbying efforts during our day on Capitol Hill shattered last year’s activism. Members met with almost 250 members of Congress, including staff from the House Education and Workforce Committee on critical workforce development legislation. The Capitol Hill reception that night attracted more lawmakers and staff than previous years and marked an investment in NUCA’s advocacy activities.
Proof of the effectiveness of the Washington Summit came quickly after the Summit’s end. The Senate passed its WRDA bill, the House passed its Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, and the House passed a robust workforce development bill, all of which contained NUCA’s proprieties and suggestions.
As spring became summer, Congress’ gears ground to a slow crawl before stopping entirely just after Independence Day. Both chambers flirted with the idea of passing appropriations bills, but neither took robust action.
As both political parties prepped for their presidential conventions, NUCA’s advocacy implemented its August Recess Challenge. Members of Congress traditionally spend the month of August in their district holding town hall meetings and visiting businesses. This election year, members of Congress adjourned for the August Recess in advance of the party conventions, meaning they left Washington in early July. This provided an awesome opportunity for NUCA members and chapters to access and influence their lawmakers while in their districts and without visiting Washington. The challenge was for any independent NUCA members and NUCA chapters to meet with as many lawmakers as possible before returning to Washington after Labor Day. Six NUCA chapters participated in the August Recess Challenge. Some were unable to obtain meetings with lawmakers, some met with staff, but many did meet with their state’s lawmakers. In the end, two chapters were tied for the number of face-to-face meetings with lawmakers: NUCA of Nebraska and SUCA. Both chapters have won a free registration for a chapter member to the 2017 Washington Summit. NUCA should be pleased, but always preparing for next year!
In September, the legislative season came to a close. The House passed a drastically smaller version of WRDA, setting the stage for a bicameral conference during the lame duck session after the November election. NUCA will be working hard to influence those negotiations in favor of many of the Senate’s proposals.
Finally, the press date for this article is about two weeks before the election, and another Inside Washington won’t be published until January. This means that your only option for current election coverage will be to subscribe to Political Insiders. This as-needed newsletter is intended to be read in three minutes or less and contain only the most vital information necessary for NUCA members and partners. There is always the opportunity to go deeper with links to specific articles or information, but it is the most effective and fastest way to stay in-the-know about NUCA’s Government Affairs. Subscribe by simply emailing me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).
NUCA celebrated some fantastic achievements in 2016. NUCA members, families and staff should be proud of this year’s accomplishments. NUCA members contributed immensely, sending 318 letters to members of Congress — a significant increase in participation from years past and an indication of momentum, both within our organization and for our priorities. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Regardless of who wins the election, there will be new members of Congress that will need educating on our topics and priorities, and the President will almost assuredly take major action within the first 100 days of his or her administration. The new year will come fast, but with your help, we’ll be ready.
Will Brown is NUCA’s director of Government Affairs.