Spurred by next Monday's congressional deadline, the waterway toll bill, S.790, sailed through two Senate committees in one week and emerged yesterday, more or less intact, for an eventual vote on the Senate floor.
The burst of progress on the bill, which would require barge lines to pay for their use of federally bulit and maintained waterways, began last Thursday when the Public Works Committees approved the measure by a suprisingly strong 14-to-1 vote.
Then yesterday S.790 came before the Commerce Committee, and even though most Commerce members knew next to nothing about the bill, they, too, proceeded to vote on it. They vote to put off the imposition of tolls for at least 18 months pending a new study of the issue.
Because the bill had been "jointly referred" to the two committees when it was introduced in February, both committees' versions of the bill will be reported to the Senate floor. That in itself constitues a considerable victory for Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R- N.M.), S. 790's sponsor, who had feared that his controversial proposal would be left for dead in one of the two committees.
The committee votes marked a vindication of the strategy Domenici had devised when he first introduced his bill in February.
Domenici had linked his toll proposal with a bill authorizing construction of a major new barge lock on the Mississippi at Alton, III. as Domenici planned it, the Alton lock would be a vehicle on which the toll plan could ride through committees.
That's just how things worked yesterday in the Commerce Committee. Most Commerce members are opposed to the waterway tolls, but they strongly favor the new lock. Because the lock authorization involves federal spending, it had to be reported out of committee by next Monday to comport with the requirements of the congressional budget procedure.
Consequently, such opponents of waterway tolls as Russell B. Long (D-La) and John C. Danforth (R-Mo) found themselves pusing to get S. 790 out of committee and onto the floor.
Because of the haste, yesterday's Commerce Committee session was something less than a model of responsible legislating. Hardly any of the committee members had had time to read S. 790, and they had to work on the bill in almost total ignotrance of sponsible legislating. Hardly any of its provisions.
Things got off to a bad start when the committee chairman, Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash), undertook to explain the bill to the members. About one-third of the way through, the 72-year-old chairman lost his train of thought, and the explanation was abruptly halted.
That didn't stop the members from debating the bill, however. Sen, ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and others complained that S. 790 would make pleasure boaters pay for navigational aids on inland rivers. No one seemed to know that the bill specifically excludesa pleasure craft, and states that federal spending for navigation aids shall not be recouped through the toll system.
There followed a flurry of amendments to the bill, and amendments to those amendments, with the result voted to report out S. 790, nobody was certain exactly what the Commerce version of the bill would say.
"Without objection," Magnuson said, "we'll let the staff clean all this up," Nobody objected.
The Public Works Committee's consideration of the waterway toll a week earlier began in a subcommittee, which help a "markup" session (where members "markup" the printed bill with various amendments) just after the hearings enden.
Under the Senate's new "sunshine" rules, most markup sessions are supposed to be held in public. But when the subcommittee members arrived for the markup, they huddled around Chairman Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), with their backs to the audience, and discussed the bill in muffled tones that could not be heard beyond the huddle.
After 40 minutes of whispered discussion, the members turned around, Domenici made a motion, and S. 790 was sent on its way.
The version of S. 790 that came out of the Public Works Committee was mecini had introduced before the hearings.
Of some 60 witnessed who testified, only one - a sand and gravel dealer from Kentucky - was to have any effect on the bill eventually reported from the committee.
The gravel dealer had asked for an amendment to spare his small business, which relies on waterway shipment, from economic disadvantage. He got a legislative commitment that he barge toll would not significantly harm small business.
Among the witnesses whose testimony had no effct was Transportation had no effect was Trandportation Secretary Brock Adams. Despite large Democratic majorities on both Senate committes, neither paid the slighest attention to the views of the carter administration, which Adams had presented in testimony.
The administration, which Adams had presented in testimony.
The administration could still influence S. 790, of course, by lobbying on the bill as it comes to the Senate floor.
"I expect there'll be alot of that," Domenici said. But that was in the future. For the present, the bill had gfotten out of committee, and that was not bad at all.