Free markets in whatever commodity, water or members of Congress for example, always favor the highest bidder while the press keeps making real interesting stories out of the auctions. -- blj
After years of drama, farmers score a big win in California water battle
The California water bill now ready for the president's signature dramatically shifts 25 years of federal policy and culminates a long and fractious campaign born in the drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley.
A rough five years in the making, the $558 million bill approved by the Senate early Saturday morning steers more water to farmers, eases dam construction, and funds desalination and recycling projects. Its rocky road to the White House also proved a costly master class in political persistence and adroit maneuvering.
“I believe these provisions are both necessary, and will help our state,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and their staffs, crafted the final water package, which the Senate approved on a 78-21 vote. They also made the hard-ball tactical choice to fold it into a widely popular infrastructure bill, which eased Senate passage while it left retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer fuming.
“I think it is absolutely a horrible process, a horrible rider,” Boxer said during floor debate Friday. “It’s going to result in pain and suffering among our fishing families.”
Boxer cited, in particular, California’s salmon industry, whose members fear the diversion of water will deplete rivers critical to salmon reproduction.
Boxer’s post-midnight vote against the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which included the approximately 98-page California bill, was likely to be the last of her 33-year congressional career. It was a sour ending for her long-time Senate partnership with Feinstein, with whom she’s amicably served since 1993.
Though ultimately futile, Boxer’s stand against the California water bill also foreshadows some of the big challenges ahead once the legislation takes effect. These include healing the rifts that have pit one region of the state against the other, managing the new Trump administration’s implementation of the law and coping with the inevitable litigation.
“It’s ugly, and it’s wrong, and it’s going to end up at the courthouse door,” Boxer predicted.
This year’s final California water package includes many elements, some of which are not especially controversial.
Non-native predatory fish in the Stanislaus River will be test-targeted for elimination. Money will support water recycling projects in cities such as Sacramento and San Luis Obispo, and to desalination projects like ones proposed for Southern California.
More controversially, the bill streamlines potential construction approval of Western water projects that could include Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. The bill’s funding includes $335 million for the water storage projects, which is only a fraction of their total cost.
With highly technical but important language, the bill also directs the pumping of more water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and seeks to ensure that Sacramento Valley farmers receive all of their allocated water.
“This water is for the tens of thousands of small farms that have gone bankrupt, like a melon farmer who sat in my office with tears in his eyes,” Feinstein said.
Boxer, echoing environmentalists, countered that the real beneficiary will be “big agribusiness.”
All sides agree the California water package marks the biggest federal shift in the state’s water use since the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which focused more on protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Farmers hated the CVPIA but, in a mirror image of this year’s water bill, it was included in a bigger package that rolled right over one of the state’s protesting senators.
The Republican senator who was left standing alone in fighting the 1992 bill, John Seymour, was subsequently defeated by Feinstein. One of the other big losers in that earlier legislative fight, the Westlands Water District, is among the victors in this year’s bill, after spending more than $1 million on lobbying in the last two years.
Other California water districts, farmer organizations and environmental groups poured resources into trying to shape the final bill. Feinstein stressed that she went through “dozens of versions” and consulted extensively with both the Obama administration and state officials to craft the legislation.
House Republicans, in turn, kept the pressure on by repeatedly passing more aggressive California water bills. These competing measures, led first in 2011 by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and then by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, kept presenting Feinstein with an issue that would not go away.
Last year, for instance, Feinstein and Boxer jointly introduced a 147-page Senate bill not long after the Republican-controlled House approved a 170-page bill along largely party lines. The competing bills helped frame the subsequent negotiations.
“My House and Senate colleagues and the people of the Valley have fought long and hard to get this legislation passed out of both chambers,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Saturday.
The fighting, at times, turned personal. Last year, Feinstein angrily accused a McCarthy staffer of trying to sneak ambitious California water language onto another must-pass bill, while California’s House Republicans united in an extraordinary denunciation of the state’s two senators for alleged inaction in the face of an emergency.
After the highly public finger-pointing, though, California’s deal-making senior senator and the state’s highest-ranking House member managed to quietly return to the bargaining table
Voters expect the government to work, but Congress again goes for a short-term patch
Voters sent a forceful message to Washington last month: Stop fooling around and work together.
Yet for the past month, lawmakers have battled over how to fund the government, creating on Friday the prospect of a partial federal shutdown. At 11:15 p.m., with less than an hour to go before a government disruption, the Senate voted to move forward with another temporary fix, the sixth this fiscal year.
Voters elected as president outsider Donald Trump, who pledged to overhaul Washington’s ways. Polls have consistently shown the public has a dismal opinion of how Congress works. Lawmakers’ Gallup Poll approval rating inched up to 20 percent in September, a level it’s reached only three times since 2012.
“Did they hear from the American people they want to stop business as usual? I’ve yet to be convinced,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.
Since it returned after the election, Congress has struggled to deal with its most basic task, funding the federal government. Budget-writers settled on a plan to keep most of the government open through April 28, punting further decisions until the spring.
The approach pleased no one, not even the lawmakers who helped guide the measure through the House. “The legislation before us is an abdication of responsibility for the entire Congress,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., a top House Appropriations Committee Democrat.
It’s a “Band-Aid on a gushing wound,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
The federal fiscal year starts each Oct. 1, and Congress is supposed to pass a dozen bills funding different parts of the government by then. It rarely does.
The stopgap funding meant that all those committees that spent 2016 holding budget hearings and writing detailed spending legislation was for naught. Those bills are stuck because once again, Congress couldn’t agree on how to craft a budget plan.
Instead, the temporary fix funds government programs largely at last year’s levels. There’s some money to help people affected by contaminated water in places such as Flint, Mich., for victims of hurricanes and other disasters, and for benefits for retired miners. Veterans affairs and military construction programs have already been funded for the entire fiscal year.
These patches reinforce voters’ poor view of Congress.
“They’re tired of this. They’re tired that nothing works the way it should,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose demand that the miners’ funding be extended beyond April was a major reason for the delay in approving a budget.
Republicans blamed Democrats for the latest exercise in gridlock. “Democrats wouldn’t let us pass any (spending) bills,” said Sen.
Democrats blamed Republicans. “We were ready” to do more comprehensive spending legislation, but Trump and his allies wanted a fresh start for the budget, said Sen.
They’re both correct. Democrats did take steps to halt consideration of several spending bills, believing their initiatives were often ignored. Republicans are eager to write their own budget next year, when they’ll control the White House as well as Congress.
To a public that’s not immersed in all this political intrigue, Congress’ latest turmoil reinforces views about the system’s breakdown in two ways, said Stan Collender, veteran Washington budget analyst.
“It’s a total breakdown in the process. Members clearly feel no need to meet deadlines on funding matters,” he said. Compromise doesn’t get them far politically.
The latest congressional chaos reinforces the notion that lawmakers do little but talk and posture. They can point fingers, said former Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican and a Washington budget expert, but in the end, “people don’t understand how Congress works.”
Republican leaders maintain the current Congress has a substantial record of achievement. It passed sweeping legislation spelling out military policy, aid to victims of the Zika virus, new guidelines for highway and education policy and more.
“Bipartisanship is not rare. It’s just rarely noted,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Republicans see more cooperation next year, and cite the promise of having the GOP run both the White House and Congress.
“It’s a very different approach when you have all three levers,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. The threat of a presidential veto diminishes, and the president has the bully pulpit to try to persuade the public and wavering lawmakers.
That optimism gets qualified quickly. When Congress returns Jan. 3, it has to quickly assemble yet another budget to get it through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The Senate has a Trump Cabinet to consider and confirm. Republican leaders promise to quickly deal with repealing Obamacare.
Most of the same congressional players will be back, well-schooled in how to slow the process.
“Nothing big is going to get done up here with one-party rule,” said Graham. “We’re not going to replace Obamacare without some Democratic buy-in.”