In Congress, seniority still matters.
Although lawmakers can no longer earmark funds for home-state projects, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has written into a massive water bill a measure that promises to bring more money to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The legislation, which passed the House on Tuesday and is expected to clear the Senate before the end of the week, provides a case study of how a committee chairman can tailor a measure to benefit his or her state in an era of tight budgets.
The water bill follows a giant transportation bill that Boxer, who heads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has worked to advance in an otherwise gridlocked Congress.
The bills reflect an evolving Boxer, still an outspoken liberal but now No. 14 in seniority in the 100-member Senate and willing to weather criticism from usual environmental allies to produce results. She has found a way to bond with Republicans through concrete.
“It’s quite a feat when you think about life in Congress these days and trying to get any legislation through,” said Jim Walker, lobbyist for the American Assn. of Port Authorities.
“I am a fiery liberal,” Boxer said in an interview. “But I’m just as fiery about jobs and the economy.”
Boxer included measures in the bill designed to address a long-standing complaint by the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports that they generate millions of dollars annually from a cargo tax but receive hardly any back.
The House-Senate agreement on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act would gradually double funding, to about $1.8 billion by 2025, for harbor maintenance nationwide. But more important for Los Angeles and Long Beach, it would expand the use of the money to include the kind of work the ports are eager to undertake.
“I do think the potential is there for huge sums of money coming to our state over time,” Boxer said.
Los Angeles, with its deep harbors, hasn’t received any of the money in recent years. A large share of the money has gone to Gulf Coast ports, which are “relatively expensive to maintain,” according to a Congressional Research Service report.
The bill would expand the use of funds to cover maintenance of channels up to the docks, a change that Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles) called important to helping the ports accommodate large ships. A Port of Los Angeles spokesman said the legislation could bring $5 million to the port over the next three to five years.
The legislation would benefit other ports — especially on the West Coast — that have complained about receiving only pennies back from the dollars generated by cargo taxes paid by their customers. The issue has long been a sore point among some California lawmakers, who say it is another example of the state not receiving its fair share from Washington.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk) complained at a congressional hearing about cargo taxes generated in Los Angeles and Long Beach going to competing ports, saying that it’s “as if the government taxes McDonald’s to build bigger Burger Kings.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti added in a recent letter to Boxer: “Los Angeles’ customers have a reasonable expectation that the taxes they pay will return to maintain the port they use.”
Among other provisions, the bill also would authorize flood-protection measures — including a $1-billion project to strengthen levees in the Sacramento area — along with coastal restoration projects in the Florida Everglades and Gulf Coast.
The bill would give priority to projects that address public health threats, such as restoration of the Salton Sea, which has been blamed for foul odors that can be smelled 150 miles away in Los Angeles.
Although the bill authorizes projects, Congress will still need to appropriate the money.
But California could be well positioned to benefit, again from seniority. The state’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, which oversees funding for water projects.
Asked whether the bill shows that seniority still matters, Boxer responded, “Without a doubt.”