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Another Game of Budget Chicken (editorial)

September 22, 2023   The Waterways Journal

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The deadline for Congress passing either a spending bill or at least a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government is September 30.


This time the holdup is deep divisions within the Republican Party itself. Some factions want to dramatically slash spending more than what was already agreed to in a handshake deal between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden this summer.  Others want to use the threat of a shutdown to achieve other, non-budget-related policy goals—or at least to make a statement about them.

What would be the implications of a shutdown for the inland waterways?


The Senate Appropriations Committee passed an Energy & Water Development bill on July 20, providing $161 million for inland waterways construction. The House passed its E&WD bill in June, with $455 million toward inland waterways construction. But, prior to that,  Biden’s FY2024 budget request proposed that zero dollars be used from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund toward construction or major rehabilitation of navigation projects.


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The House Appropriations Committee acted swiftly by marking up its bill a week before it did the previous year, resulting in robust funding for the Corps of Engineers’ civil works program and specifically for inland waterways. While many of the subcommittee appropriations allocations were reduced due to the debt ceiling negotiation by as much as 30 percent, the Corps of Engineers received an increase. Overall proposed funding for the Corps was $9.57 billion in the House bill, an increase of $910 million above FY23’s appropriated level and $2.16 billion above the president’s FY24 budget request. All these moves show the strong level of bipartisan support the inland waterways enjoy in Congress.


However, if the president’s budget request is enacted, or if Congress ends up passing a full-year continuing resolution (which is one possibility under discussion), it would mean that no ongoing inland waterways construction or major rehabilitation projects would receive any funding this year, or as long as a CR is in place. A short-term CR might not make that much difference, but a longer-term one would halt new Corps spending under something called the “least of” rule (automatically reverting to the lowest most recent funding level).  If this happens, construction timelines would be extended, ultimately driving up project costs.


For the good of the country as well as the inland waterways, we hope everyone concerned finds a way forward that doesn’t involve a shutdown. They are universally unpopular. As the Senate minority leader has pointed out, shutdowns have never succeeded in forcing any policy change, and the party perceived to be responsible for them always suffers in the polls in their aftermath. Beyond those tactical considerations, budget chicken is no way to fund a government.