(September 23, 2020) – The prospects for Congress passing another comprehensive COVID-19 package before the end of the year were already fading in recent weeks, as NACWA reported earlier this month. The passing on September 18th of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the highly partisan debate surrounding a new Supreme Court nomination is further tempering expectations for other significant bipartisan legislation, including COVID-19 relief, being passed by Congress this year.
More likely, the Supreme Court will hold the Senate’s focus through the November election, as the Senate Majority has indicated it will quickly forge ahead on the nomination process with an expectation of a full Senate confirmation vote before the end of October. Meanwhile the House is expected to adjourn as soon as this week until after the November elections once a short-term government funding bill is approved.
The most critical outstanding issue before Congress – keeping the federal government funded past the Sept. 30th fiscal year end – is quickly being addressed through a short-term agreement. But avoiding a federal shutdown is of minimal reassurance to the states, local governments, utilities, and households that were hoping for additional Congressional COVID-19 action.
As the COVID-19 negotiations lull, NACWA will be focused on continued outreach and education with Congressional offices regarding how utilities have been addressing the challenges of COVID-19 and the need for utility and ratepayer COVID-19 relief. NACWA will also be continuing to dialogue with Congress regarding how best to maintain access to water services.
Over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, a wave of new attention arose among Members of Congress regarding the need to maintain access to water during the crisis. While the sector’s commitment to maintaining vital services is well appreciated – and at the heart of what public clean water agencies do every day – NACWA and other water sector organizations made clear that proposals such as a mandatory federal moratorium on water shutoffs were only viable if commensurate funding was included for impacted utilities; otherwise, these unfunded restrictions would only exacerbate affordability challenges at a time utilities and communities can least address them.
The political reality has been such that, given the critical role of sanitation in this crisis, proposals to provide federal water relief have been inseparable from proposals to prevent service shutoffs. While the majority of utilities quickly enacted policies to help maintain access and provide payment flexibility for struggling customers, this only underscored for some Members of Congress the lack of federal protections in place.
This dynamic has been frustrating at times but has also helped drive unprecedented new interest in water access and the need for greater investment in the public clean water sector. The need for additional federal support for clean water is much more evident now for many Members of Congress, and this awareness can pay important dividends down the road in future legislative developments.
With the pause in COVID-19 relief progress, NACWA plans to continue talking with Congressional offices to craft solutions toward the common goal of maintaining clean, safe, reliable, and affordable water access for all. And if Congress should decide in the coming months to revive bipartisan discussions on more COVID-19 relief, NACWA will work to ensure the needs of the clean water community are front and center in those conversations.
Contact Kristina Surfus, NACWA Managing Director of Government Affairs, to discuss these issues further.