With a sudden surge of support from a most unlikely source - the barge industry - the waterway toll bill moved lickety-split through two House committees in a week, and yesterday it seemed almost sure of House passage by Friday.
The controversial legislation, which would require barge lines transportitsemed almost sure of House passage by Friday.
The controversial legislation, which would require barge lines transporting freight on the nation's inland waterways to help the government pay for maintaining those waterways, was approved by the Public Works and Ways and Means committees after both held rapid-fire hearings last week.
That meant that the tight schedule established by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) would most likely be met. The legislation could pass in the House and be dispatched to the Senate later this week.
The Senate has already passed a waterway toll bill. But O'Neill shelved that measured when it came to the House, on grounds that it violated the House's constitutional prerogative to originate all revenue bills.
In a meeting on July 12, O'Neill directed Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) and Public Works Chairman Harold T. Johnson (D-Calif.) to "originate" a House version - and get it done by the end of July.
The bill that emerged from those committees reflects the basic structures of the Senate bill.
Both the House and Senate versions would force barge lines, for the first time, to pay for using inland waterways. Both provide the same "sweetener" to offset the blow: funding for a major new barge facility at Locks and Dam 26, the 26th dam down the Mississippi from Minneapolis.
But the House bill takes a sharply different course toward collecting the barge charge. While the Senate bill contemplates a system of tolls or license fees, the House Ways and means Committee yesterday approved a considerably simpler mechanism: a tax on the diesel fuel that drives the barges.
The fuel tax proposal was put forth by Ullman, and it quickly found support from almost everybody interested in the legislation. Even the barge lobbyists said that, if they had to pay at all, a fuel tax would be the least painful way.
For onething, the "tax" would be distributed more evenly over the industry than a "toll" system, the bargemen said.
"Further, a "tax", unlike a "fee" or a "toll" would be the province of the Ways and Means Committee in the House and the Fiance Committee in the Senate - both of which include mostly pro-barge members. If there had to be some waterway charge, the bargemen felt, it would be nice to keep it under the thumb of those two committees.
With that issue settled, the Ways and Means members turned to the central question in every tax bill they write: how much?
To collect the same amount that the Senate bill would raise. Transportation Secretary Brock Adams told the committee, the proper fuel tax would be about 42 cents per gallon, phased in a 4 cents annually for the next decade.
The barge lobbyists had a more modest idea. They suggested 4 cents per gallon once and for all - without tht yearly increase Adams suggested.
The tax writers, as is their won't, looked for a compromise - and hit on one that deeply pleased the bargemen. They would phase in a tax that would go no higher than 6 cents per gallon - just 14 per cent of what Adams had asked.
Lobbyists for railroads, the barge lines' arch competitors, were aghast when that proposal surfaced. Barge lobbyists, in contrast, found themselves actually working for a barge charge - as long as it was strictly the 6-cent plan.
With Ullman, O'Neill and the bargemen all in favor, tht Ways and Means members went happily along, passing the 6-cent tax and sending it to the floor.
It was a watered-down waterway bill, to be sure, but the central concept - the barge charge - was intact.