A Sighting of the Rare Bird of Bipartisanship

Surprise, surprise. The current Congress—the same one that has melted down numerous times over judicial appointments, intelligence investigations, healthcare, and taxes—actually passed some bipartisan water infrastructure legislation—and the President signed it. However, America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 ("AWIA") doesn't put much of a dent in the estimated need for more than a trillion dollars to repair and replace aging drinking water and wastewater systems nationwide.

In fact, the bill doesn't "show us the money" much at all. To the extent that the AWIA contains any mention of dollars (amounting to a few billion total), the dollars are mostly just authorized rather than appropriated, so it's not real money, and in fact, the legislation will ultimately increase the deficit by a few hundred million dollars. To address that small problem, the bill contains a financial sleight of hand that can best be described as robbing Peter to pay Paul. The bill directs the Secretary of Energy to sell 5 million barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—but not until 2028—to make up the deficiency. Oil for water? Creative maybe, but not exactly coherent policy.

Even the supporters of the AWIA do not claim that it provides any significant financial assistance for rebuilding infrastructure. Instead, the bill is supposed to cut red tape, create jobs and grow the economy, promote federalism and fiscal responsibility, and protect lives and property. A close reading reveals that its main focus is to make it easier for non-federal entities, including private parties, to get authorized projects moving despite the lack of federal funding, by lifting some permitting requirements and incentivizing non-federal project financing. Perhaps it's not so surprising that the bill sailed through with bipartisan support to a smooth landing on the President's desk, since nobody had to put any real money on the table.

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