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Washington DC Update - December 2020

Scott Berry, Director of Policy and Government Affairs, US Water Alliance | December 18, 2020

There’s much still left to be addressed in Congress, not the least of which is the impending end to government funding, which runs out midnight Friday, December 11. The House and Senate passed a one-week continuing resolution on December 9, which pushes the government funding deadline to Friday, December 18. However, it will still be a tight turnaround for a massive spending package. An alternative would be to kick the can into 2020 by passing another continuing resolution before the 18th that extends funding into early next year. Regardless of which way Congress decides to go, it is critically important to avoid a government shutdown which would be disastrous for millions of Americans are struggling due to a nine-months-and-counting global pandemic. 
 
Speaking of the pandemic, Congress has not passed any coronavirus aid since the CARES Act earlier this summer. The $300 weekly unemployment insurance that extended coronavirus aid through an Executive Order in August, ends at the end of the calendar year, and negotiations for renewed aid seem to be at a stalemate. Earlier in the month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a framework for a $908 billion stimulus plan, which Majority Leader McConnell has since rejected. On the other side of the aisle, the White House offered the Democrats a separate $916 billion pandemic stimulus proposal. The White House’s proposal, which does not extend the CARES unemployment benefit, has been rejected by Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer. So where does that leave us? It is possible that Speaker Pelosi will push for legislation that serves both purposes of funding the government before the shutdown deadline and of providing pandemic relief. But Congress hasn’t provided much cause for optimism, and even if both sides come to an agreement, the President will still need to sign any bill into law, which is something we might not be able to count on.  
 
For instance, the President is threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 (H.R. 6395), which is perhaps the longest running piece of legislation to consistently pass on time in modern history, having been signed into law every year since its inception in 1962. The President is vocal about his opposition to a provision in the NDAA that would rename military facilities that are currently named for Confederate leaders. The House voted 335-78 to approve the NDAA, which includes funding for cleanup of PFAS contamination at military site, in a vote that would be enough to override a veto should the President issue one. However, there are some concerns that some Republicans who voted for the NDAA in the House would not vote to approve the bill in event of a veto. 
 
And amidst a to-be-determined spending bill, stalled pandemic stimulus, and an uncertain NDAA, some in Congress are also hoping to pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) after much back and forth between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The final version of the bill (S. 1811), passed in the House and is headed to the Senate. However, unlike the other pieces of legislation on Congress’s plate, WRDA has no ticking clock. The last WRDA bill was passed in 2018, and so to push the decision to 2021 would not deviate too far from the traditional two-year reauthorization timeline. And for those in the water sector it may be advantageous if the bill wasn’t passed this year. The final version of the bill is mostly limited to providing for Army Corps of Engineers projects and left out key provisions the water sector had advocated for including reauthorization of  the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program.  If postponed to 2021, it would give advocates another chance to push for clean water provisions.
 
However, it is of note that WRDA 2020 does have important provisions promoting resiliency planning assistance for economically disadvantaged communities (Section 111) as well as the inclusion of minority communities, low-income communities, and Indian Tribes in project consultation (Section 112). These provisions, along with Section 118, which establishes pilot programs to address storm damage reduction needs of rural and economically disadvantaged communities, should be retained in any subsequent version of WRDA 2020.
 
No matter how the end of the year shakes out, some may just be eager to say goodbye to 2020. However, with so many decisions down to the wire, the remainder of the month seems like it will be a nail biter for those looking for answers from Congress.