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Election-Year Gridlock

WITH PARTISANSHIP creating an unproductive environment on Capitol Hill, there is little chance Congress will accomplish much this year. In the Senate, only 41 votes are needed to block a vote on legislation. If 60 senators don't vote to end debate (i.e. filibuster) on legislation and bring bills up for a vote, they often will die. Typically, the party out of the White House believes new laws will benefit the party in power, which can lead to excessive filibustering.

Below are several issues important to the solid waste industry that could gain attention this year — or could be stuck in legislative purgatory, thanks to election-year politics.

International/Interstate Waste

To stem the flow of Canadian waste into Michigan, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has added funding to the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development (VA-HUD) and Independent Agencies Appropriations Bill to allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., to enforce the “notice and consent” clause included in the U.S.-Canadian Bilateral Agreement on Hazardous Waste (amended to include solid waste). Under the notice and consent provision, the waste-exporting country must notify the importing country of shipments and receive consent from the importing country.

Although the VA-HUD and Dingell provision passed as part of the massive Omnibus Appropriations bill, it is unclear how the EPA will proceed. The EPA testified before Congress last year that it did not have the authority to enforce notice and consent requirements because the United States has not ratified The Basel Convention, an international environmental agreement. Congress still has no plans to proceed with ratification. As it stands, the Dingell provision is little more than window dressing for the residents of Michigan.

With Canadian waste in the limelight, interstate waste issues are unlikely to receive attention from Congress because they have higher priorities to address in a very short session.

Landfill Gas Credits

The Energy Bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003 and contained language to provide tax credits for the conversion of landfill gas (LFG) to electricity. The House bill would allow for a credit under Section 45 of the tax code equal to 1.2 cents for each kilowatt-hour of energy produced from LFG. Facilities must be in service between Jan. 1, 2004, and Jan. 1, 2007, and should never have received any credits under Section 29, which provides a credit for LFG energy equivalent to $3 per barrel of oil but is limited to the first 200,000 cubic feet of natural gas equivalent produced daily. Last year, the Senate was two votes short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wants to pass a comprehensive energy bill in 2004. However, it will be difficult to craft a bill that attracts enough support from Senate Democrats to pass but does not alienate conservative House Republicans.

Diesel Fuel Tax Breaks

With the current transportation funding bill expiring at the end of February, Congress started work last year on the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA). SAFETEA presents the best opportunity for Congress to pass a tax break for nonpropulsion diesel fuel use. Legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to provide a $250 income tax credit for each qualified waste vehicle.

Class Action Reform

The House has passed legislation making it easier to move certain class action lawsuits from state to federal courts. The Senate was one vote short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and vote on class action reform. Since the last vote, changes were made to the legislation, and three Democrats now support the legislation. Like the House bill, the Senate bill would allow multi-state class action lawsuits to be moved from state to federal court if two-thirds of the plaintiffs reside in a different state than the defendant.

Bill Sells is director of federal relations at the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at bsells@envasns.org.