By Scott Berry, Director of Policy and Government Affairs, US Water Alliance

February 23, 2021

The first month of President Biden’s term has been defined by the urgent need to support pandemic relief and recovery efforts. One of President Biden’s first actions in office was to issue an Executive Order on Economic Relief Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic to provide immediate support to struggling Americans. In the release of the Executive Order, the White House called on Congress to “finish the job” of providing economic relief by passing the American Rescue Plan, which President Biden put forth before assuming office. To that end, throughout the past month Congress has been working to pass COVID relief legislation through the budget reconciliation process, which allows legislation affecting federal spending and revenue to pass by a simple majority.
Earlier in February, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a series of COVID relief proposals including $500 million for water rate assistance. This funding for water rate assistance stems from the American Rescue Plan’s set aside of $5 billion to help renters pay their utility bills. The Alliance would like to see more of that $5 billion go towards water assistance, but the $500 million in water rate assistance is in addition to the $638 million water bill debt relief included in the coronavirus aid package at the end of 2020, making the total for water rate assistance approximately $1.1 billion. More is needed to be sure, but this is still an important victory.
The House Budget Committee aggregated the COVID relief proposals to develop the final, 591-page reconciliation bill or the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.” In addition to the funding for a water assistance program (Sec. 3303), the bill calls for $10 million to be set aside for expenses relating to potable water delivery to tribal communities (Sec. 3041). The House Budget Committee approved the $1.9 trillion bill, and the legislation is now slated for a vote in full House. With strong support from Democrats, the bill is anticipated to be passed along to the Senate.
Looking to the future of the COVID relief package, Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) expressed optimism that the legislation will pass in the Senate and is on track to be signed by President Biden before the March 14 unemployment benefits deadline. In the coming weeks, the Alliance policy team will be tracking the status of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and will be also keeping an eye on the next wave of economic stimulus legislation. President Biden’s Build Back Better plan holds great promise for advancing water infrastructure investment.
Already in the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing to examine needs for water infrastructure upgrades and for continued financial assistance for water rates. The $500 million for water rate assistance in the American Rescue Plan Act is just the first bite at the apple, and the Alliance anticipates legislation in the coming months to codify a permanent water affordability program.
Meanwhile, the Senate has had its hands full with former President Trump’s second impeachment trial, as well as with confirmation hearings for President Biden’s cabinet nominees. Unable to reach the two-thirds vote threshold to convict the former president, the Senate acquitted Trump on the charge of inciting an insurrection. However, a majority of senators did vote to convict Trump, making the 57 to 43 vote the most bipartisan impeachment in US History.
Prior to the Senate impeachment trial, the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing on the nomination of Michael Regan to be Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the hearing, Senate Committee members spotlighted water issues, asking Regan about PFAS in drinking water and how he would handle the Waters of the United States rule. In his response, Regan indicated his intention to protect wetlands and water quality, while providing certainty to the farming community. The Senate EPW Committee voted 14-6 to advance Regan’s nomination to the full Senate and this bipartisan support for Regan bodes well for confirmation in the Senate.