The Carter administration finally took a stand on S. 790, and for supporters of the waterways bill it was a good news/bad news sort of day.
It was good news when Transportation Secretary Brock Adams told a Senate Public Works subcommittee that the administration strongly supports the principal goal of the legislation: to require barge lines using the nation's inland rivers and canals to help pay for the maintenance of those waterways.
Noting that the federal government now spends nearly $1 billion annually keeping up the waterways. Adams said, "It is simply not equitable, not just, that profit-making businesses should have this much of their costs met by the American taxpayer."
The bad news came when the Secretary proposed a method for collecting the waterway fees. Adams suggested a federal tax on the diesel oil that fuels the barges.
As a practical matter, the fuel tax would be the simplest and soundest method of imposing a barge charge. It would be considerably easier to collect and administer than such other proposals as a network of toll gates along the waterways or a federal licensing fee for barges.
Politically, however, the fuel tax is the worst possible approach to a waterway user charge.
A fuel tax would be, after all, a tax. Like all new tax plans, it could not reach the Senate floor withour first winning approval of the Senate's tax-writing arm, the Finance Commitee. That committee though is chaired by Russell Long (D.La.), whose homestate includes two of the world's largest barge ports and who is, consequently a resolute foe of any form of waterway charge.
It was precisely to avoid Long, in fact, that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the author of S.790, carefully kept the waor "tax" out of his bill. Domenici always talked about his plan as a "toll" or "fee" and he had hoped that semantic distinction would keep his legislation in the Public Works Committee, safely out of Long's clutches.
As soon as Adams uttered the phrase "fuel tax" at yesterday's hearing. Domenici and Sen. Mike Gravel (D.Alaska) undertook to explain that sad political reality.
"If this is put forward as a fuel tax", Gravel said, "it will have to be referred to another committee...the chances of getting a waterway out of that committee might be fairly remote."
If the truth were known, Adams already was aware of that. During the deliberations on the Deomenici bill within the administration, he had tried to explain that a fuel tax was, politically, an unwise approach.
But the secretary had been over-ruled by Bert Lance's team at the Office of Management and Budget, who insisted that Long might be sold some form of barge tax. So Adams, the good team player, had presented the Lance position as his own before the subcommittee.
To soften the blow somewhat. Adams readily agreed to Gravel's suggestion that he give the subcommittee a detailed "toll" plan.
But the damage had been done. By espousing a fuel tax. Adams had provided an invaluable weapon for senators who oppose the whole idea of waterway charges.
If Domenici's bill reaches the Senate floor, the opponents can now argue, with the Carter administration's blessing, that the Finance Committee is the appropriate place for such legislation - knowing full well that any waterway bill sent into Long's committee is unlikely ever to come out.
Adams, whose appearance drew a packed, standing-room-only crowd of lobbyists, congressional aides, and reporters to the hearing room, threw another procedural monkey wrench into S.790's works by proposing an 18-month delay in construction of a major a new lock on the Mississippi at Alton, 111.
The Alton facility is the chief legislative goal this year of the barge industry. Domenici had joined his waterway charge plan to the Alton proposal, in the hope that barge interests might accepts the toll as a necessary price for approval of the new lock.
But with Adams proposing "deferment" of the Alton project Domenici had lost his vehicle.
On the day when its basic principle had received a strong push forward from the executive branch, S.790 was in worse shape than ever.