The Water Resources Reform and Development Act proves bipartisan legislation can be passed by Congress and could be used as a model for future bills, says U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga.
We heartily agree.
The bill, which has been sent to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature after passing the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Thursday, among other things, fixes the structure of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That, in turn, could expedite the process to get needed funding for the replacement Chickamauga lock.
"This shows the American people we can work across the spectrum of projects, where the systems are flawed, and how you can fight waste, fraud and abuse," Fleischmann said in an interview. "You have to do that to be more fiscally responsible."
The bill's changed funding formula for the trust fund makes more money available for all U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam projects, but the Chickamauga lock is still fourth on the list behind the Olmsted Dam on the Ohio River (which has been getting most of the funding in recent years), the Lower Monongahela River project in Pennsylvania and the Kentucky Lock on the Tennessee River.
"I continue to inquire and press for the Army Corps to allocate funds to the Chickamauga lock," Fleischmann said. "It should be much easier now that the structure has been fixed."
But the two-term congressman could not say when that might be.
"As to the exact time frame," he said, "I don't know."
However, without the funding changes, and minus the earmarks on bills which previously funded the new lock's construction, it would have taken decades to receive funding, Fleischmann said.
"I knew a lot of things [in Congress] were broken when I got here," he said. "The structure of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund was broken and flawed. All the money was going to Olmsted. I advocated for not doing business as usual."
Yet, Fleischmann said, "there were a lot of naysayers that said you're not going to fix this broken problem" -- that Congress would have to return to earmarks or not fund the projects at all. "My main theme was to continue to work toward fixing a broken system." To achieve that eventually, he said, "was a monumental accomplishment."
Fleischmann, indeed, said he made a pest of himself in wanting to get things changed.
"I advocated tirelessly," he said. "I wore out the [House] leadership, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, anyone who would listen. I spent an enormity of time and effort."
Earlier this week when the House passed the bill, Fleischmann was given the privilege of serving as Speaker pro tempore, then was allowed to speak on the bill and then returned as Speaker pro tempore for the actual passage.
"I was [pleased] to be able to lead on this issue," he said.
Now that the structure of the trust fund is fixed, Fleischmann said he's "amenable to looking at revenue solutions [to accelerate the work] as they come up on a case by case basis."
Among those is an increase in the barge fuel tax, which has been supported by barge owners and by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
"I was steadfastly opposed to revenue increases until we fixed the structure," he said. Without it, "we'd lapse into our old ways" of increasing revenue but never fixing the problem. "I went to Congress to fight those problems." But if the revenue solutions "do what they're purported to do, I'll keep an open mind."
While the new bill pushes up the timetable for the likely completion of the one-third finished new lock, Fleischmann said it's important to understand the old lock must be maintained until then and to assure people it's not going to break and flood Chattanooga, as he said people have told him they've heard.
When he first went to Congress, he said, he got "conflicting reports from the [Army] Corps on the exact status, and that's why I went to visit [the lock] so many times."
"I had to rise above the political fray -- the misinformation, the disinformation -- strip the politics away and focus on policy," Fleischmann said. "People were trying to assert political agendas to scare the public. There is no danger."
What's more vital, he said, is that "the critically important commercial traffic ... be maintained. There are billions of dollars of exports and goods that go down that inland waterway. I'm committed to make that safe and vibrant."
Fleischmann said he hopes the water resources bill is a sign that "both parties can come together, set up a fiscally responsible structure and that good things can flow from that.
"I think it signals a new way of doing business in Congress," he said. "And it does away with a system [rife] with waste, fraud and abuse. We cannot lapse into the old way of doing things. I think this hearkens a new era of getting things done."
That's something everyone can get behind.