DC Update

Are Great Lakes Priorities Advancing in an Era of Divided Government?

By Don Jodrey, the Alliance’s Director of Federal Government Relations

August 23, 2023

Donald Jodrey headshot.

At the beginning of the year, we announced an ambitious Great Lakes federal policy agenda. We also noted that it was the start of a new Congress and an era of divided government. We predicted that there were likely to be major policy disagreements between the Republican House, the Democratic Senate, and the Biden administration that might result in a stalemate or lack of progress on some issues.

We’re now past the halfway mark of the year, and Congress is on its August recess. So we’re asking: Are Great Lakes priorities making progress? And what else can we do to advocate for the Great Lakes?

Budget battles: Funding holds for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but disagreements threaten water infrastructure & environmental justice

After several months of protracted negotiations to deal with the debt ceiling, which resulted in legislation to keep nondefense spending flat in FY 2024 and provide a small 1% increase in FY 2025, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have marked up the bills that contain funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The House committee provided $368 million, which is the same as last year’s enacted level, while the Senate committee provided a $5 million increase for a total of $373 million. These funding levels are well short of the program’s authorized level of $425 million. However, given the major funding reductions proposed by the House elsewhere in the bill and in the debt ceiling agreement, holding the GLRI program at the same level as last year demonstrates the strong bipartisan support for this program throughout the Great Lakes delegation.

Unfortunately, water infrastructure programs did not fare well in the House bill markup. The House Appropriations Committee proposed steep cuts – more than $1.7 billion – to water infrastructure funding that supports state clean water and drinking water programs. House Republicans rationalized these reductions by noting that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 provided major increases for water infrastructure for the next several years. However, the House’s proposed reduction is alarming. These cuts are not consistent with the debt ceiling agreement both parties agreed to earlier this year and backtrack on much-needed federal support for essential drinking water, sewer, and stormwater projects. 

The House also proposes eliminating environmental justice funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and rescinding more than $1.4 billion in funding for environmental and climate justice programs provided by the Inflation Reduction Act. 

In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposes to maintain water infrastructure and environmental justice funding consistent with last year’s level and with the Inflation Reduction Act.

Given these major policy disagreements over federal funding, it is highly unlikely that the House and Senate will be able to come to agreement on the individual spending bills this year. The potential for a government shutdown is high and a continuing resolution is a certainty. The debt ceiling deal requires Congress to pass all 12 annual spending bills by January 1, and if they are not passed or a short-term funding extension is in place, then an automatic funding reduction of 1% will occur.

Plastics legislation is introduced in the Senate

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has held several hearings on the topic of plastic pollution this year. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced “The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act” to begin the effort to address the problems posed by plastic pellets in our waters, including the Great Lakes. The bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency, using its Clean Water Act regulatory authorities, to prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets and other pre-production plastics into waterways from facilities and sources that make, use, package, or transport plastic pellets. Plastic pellets, like other microplastics, pose a danger to human health, as well as to fish, wildlife, and ecosystems. It is estimated that more than 250,000 tons of plastic pellets are in our waterways, and more than 42 of 66 beaches in the Great Lakes have been found to have serious pollution issues associated with plastic pellets. Although a companion House bill has not yet been introduced and other plastic pollution reduction measures are likely to be introduced in the Senate in the coming months, this is likely to be an area that Congress will debate for some time. 

On the Administrative side, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released for public comment its draft national strategy to address plastic pollution. We at the Alliance, along with some of our partners, strongly advocated that EPA utilize its existing authorities under the Clean Water Act to regulate and reduce microplastic pollution in our water.

Stay tuned for the Farm Bill

Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have held hearings and significant outreach on the 2023 Farm Bill and have introduced “marker bills” (bills that will not be passed but that are placeholders) for this must-pass piece of legislation. It is likely that legislative text will emerge in September. But the disagreements in funding between the House and the Senate for some Farm Bill programs indicate that this traditionally bipartisan piece of legislation may face some tough challenges this year. We have encouraged Great Lakes members to support increased funding for conservation programs, as well as provisions to ensure accountability for conservation programs that address agricultural runoff pollution.

Engineering and design continues for invasive carp protections

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is continuing its pre-construction, engineering, and design work for invasive carp protections at Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Illinois. This important project is intended to stop the spread of invasive carp into the Great Lakes. The project received much-needed funding boosts from the States of Illinois and Michigan, which included funds in their state budgets to cover the state share of the construction costs for the project. The next step is for the State of Illinois and the Corps to sign a project partnership agreement so that the first phase of construction may commence in mid-2024.

Looking ahead, your voice matters

The legislative process will continue for the rest of the year – and, as noted earlier, there are major disagreements between the House and Senate over funding. Your voice can make a difference. Contact Congress about the issues that are of concern to you, particularly in areas where major reductions to clean and safe drinking water programs are proposed, or if federal legislation would be helpful to address a particular need like reducing plastic pollution or addressing harmful nutrient runoff. Let your members of Congress know how important clean and healthy Great Lakes are to you.

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