Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades. (Photo: National Park Service)
July 10, 2020 by David Silverberg
The campaign season is kicking into high gear. If you’re in the Fort Myers-Naples TV market and watch the local news in the 5:00 to 6:30 pm hour, you’re seeing a seemingly endless stream of political campaign ads marching across your screen.
However, television ads are, of course, just snippets, intended to give a fleeting impression of a candidate.
These candidates—and the others who can’t afford air time—are vying to represent Southwest Florida in the Congress of the United States.
But do they have any grasp of the real work of Congress? Do they understand the nitty-gritty of government operations? Have they paid any attention at all to the kind of legislation that really affects Southwest Florida and Floridians? Do they have basic local knowledge? Are they doing any real policy homework? Do they know what a congressional representative actually does? Do they care about impacting peoples’ lives in Southwest Florida?
The Paradise Progressive decided to ask all congressional candidates one question about one issue that’s fundamental to Southwest Florida that involves Congress, the federal government and legislation to see how they responded.
The question, issued on Monday, July 6, was: “As a member of Congress, what specific changes would you make to WRDA to benefit Southwest Florida and the 19th Congressional District?”
Would anyone even google “WRDA” to see what the acronym means?
The most important legislation you’ve never heard of
WRDA: it’s usually pronounced “word-DA” and it actually stands for the Water Resources Development Act.
It’s hardly ever mentioned in Southwest Florida, in either conversation or the media, or especially on the campaign trail. And yet, it has an enormous impact on the region and its livability.
That’s because WRDA is the broad, all-encompassing congressional act governing all water projects and management in the United States. It’s a gigantic piece of legislation that gives the government authority to dredge canals, build dams, raise levees, control floods, maintain harbors, alter rivers, manage water releases and do the million and more things that require water to serve people, make land more productive and keep pollution at bay.
In Southwest Florida WRDA impacts the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, the Herbert Hoover Dike, the Caloosahatchee River and all the other streams, creeks and lakes that manage and provide the life-sustaining liquid making human habitation here possible.
When it comes to Congress, it’s a piece of legislation where an individual representative can have a real impact and where he or she can make a real difference. Candidates can fulminate on all the grand themes they like, but once they’re in office and have to really deal with the nuts and bolts of governing, getting and spending federal money and representing their district, WRDA has to be a priority.
Because it covers so many activities, WRDA must be constantly reauthorized to keep up with new needs and changes. The bill’s preamble calls for a new WRDA reauthorization every two years and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida agrees, saying it’s needed “to provide consistent authorization of Everglades projects.” That’s a position echoed by the Florida Association of Counties.
A 2020 WRDA is in the congressional works and it may be presented to the full House by the end of July. Usually, it’s a bipartisan, politically neutral bill, since it deals with facts on the ground rather than ideology or partisanship.
As a demonstration of just how important it really is, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-4-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chose to keep it out of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the House on July 1. That bill was treated as partisan by Republicans and has gone to the Senate where it is likely to die. By contrast, a separate WRDA bill is getting Republican buy-in and the Senate has already passed its own version. Unless President Trump is completely bonkers by the time it reaches his desk before the end of the year, he’s likely to sign it.
For Southwest Florida, the 2020 WRDA will authorize the funding for restoring the Everglades through the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). It will also regulate discharges from Lake Okeechobee, making harmful algal blooms less likely—or more so.
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), the retiring representative, was very active on WRDA to protect Everglades restoration funding and posted A history of Southwest Florida, WRDA and the Everglades on his website.
Various water-related local activist groups have already weighed in on the 2020 WRDA, in addition to the Conservancy.
“Lots of pieces to WRDA,” observed John Cassani, director of Calusa Waterkeeper, a non-profit, water purity advocacy group, to The Paradise Progressive. “Definitely needed but would not support the ‘savings clause’ issue if it gets into the legislation.” The “savings clause” essentially states that the legal state of existing water sources can’t be altered until new sources are found. In essence it protects the status quo around Lake O. It has long been the subject of controversy and debate. (For the full, official document involving the Savings Clause, see Annex B: Analyses Required by WRDA 2000 and Florida State Law.)
In Congress, on April 30, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-20-Fla.) circulated a letter advocating that the next WRDA treat all CERP sub-projects as “ongoing” projects—that way there wouldn’t have to be separate congressional authorizations for each project. It would speed and streamline Everglades restoration. In a show of bipartisan agreement, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-23-Fla.) signed on.
WRDA is a vast and sprawling piece of legislation. It’s the kind of thing that a member of Congress, especially from Southwest Florida, has to keep an eye on. It’s not the kind of thing that lends itself to hoopla or slogans. It’s the real work of Congress and it’s where congressional representation really counts.
So how did our candidates do?
The candidates respond
Of the dozen candidate campaigns running for Congress in the 19th Congressional District, four responded to the WRDA question. Their answers are presented here in full and unedited.
Both local Democrats running for Congress responded to the question. In alphabetical order:
“The Everglades are one of the most important aspects of both our water and our community here in Southwest Florida. While I’m glad that the federal government has granted money to restore the Everglades and repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, I plan on ensuring this is a top priority of the government after I am elected to Congress. Francis Rooney pushed the estimated completion time back to 2022 because he knew he was not going to run again. Additionally, we need to continue to improve the process, allowing for more local input and control over releases, and speed of review of the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). It is necessary to be able to adjust the LORS so more water can be provided during the winter months, when our estuaries need it, and less flows in the summer months where there can be damage to our ecosystem. As the champion of the people of Southwest Florida I’m going to fight to ensure our water and our community are protected and that the federal government upholds their plans to restore the Everglades.”
“I strongly support authorization of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA). The WRDA authorizes important water resource studies and provides critical federal funding that Southwest Florida needs to adequately protect its’ vital natural resources. It is my great desire that the WRDA is authorized soon and that our federal government expends all resources available to combat the climate change crisis we face today.”
Two Republicans responded.
“The Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) of 2018 clearly stated that the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir is part of the Central Everglades PLanning Project. However, the Army Corps of Engineers’ bureaucracy still designated this as a ‘new start,’ thus delaying the needed project that would have otherwise been completed in time and under budget. As your congressman, I will help diminish this act by the Army Corps. Furthemore, as your congressman, I will continue to support additional WRDAs that will provide needed insight and projects to aid water management and precision water ecosystems in Southwest Florida. We must stop the ‘Red tide’ and do everything in our power to do so. Republicans are the only ones who protect the environment. If you take a look at liberal communist China, they are destroying the environment every day. The Democrats and the Communists want to ruin God’s creations. It’s why they haven’t done anything when it comes to the environment in well over 40 years, and the first environmental efforts were done by Republicans. The Democrats and communists view environmental policy as punishing businesses and blue collar Americans, while ignoring the root of the cause. They have a deep hatred for America and our institutions.”
“Sustained funding. Once a project is authorized, there must be sustained funding for completing that project. Time is money, and when it comes to CERP, the longer it takes to build these projects, the more it costs—both in terms of money and the harm that results from these projects not being online. The State of Florida has a track record of building projects faster and cheaper than the federal government. CERP is a 50/50 partnership between the state and federal governments. If the state can do it faster and cheaper, Congress should be passing those dollars onto the state to carry out the federal responsibility and stretch federal taxpayer dollars farther than they are going now. And they could do that by a block grant process.”
Of the other candidates:
- State Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee): No response
- State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral): No response
- Dr. William Figlesthaler, Republican: No response
- Mayor Randy Henderson, Republican: No response
- Daniel Kowal, Republican: No available e-mail address
- Christy McLaughlin, Republican: No response
- Dan Severson, Republican: No response
- Antonio Dumornay, Independent: No available e-mail address
Conclusion: Doing the homework
Election campaigns have always had a strong element of the trivial: There are people who make up their minds on a candidate based on his five o’clock shadow—or lack of it; whether he can shoot a gun or not; whether or not she wears a pantsuit or the cut of her hair.
But America has seen how damaging making judgments on these superficialities can be. Electing someone to office without preparation, or background or, for that matter, interest in government and its operations, can literally result in death, as we’re seeing with the coronavirus pandemic response.
Sending a representative to Congress to work on behalf of this region should be based on the person’s knowledge of government, the issues and their proposed solutions and ideas. Candidates should do their homework before they run and be familiar with their district’s vital interests. In the case of Southwest Florida, that means balancing the needs of human habitation with preservation of the natural environment.
That’s the ideal, anyway. In the race for 19th Congressional District seat, it’s now clear that some candidates—or their campaign staffs—are willing to devote some time and attention to what they will actually be doing if they get to Washington.
Or, at the very least, they’re reading and answering their e-mails.
Liberty lives in light
© 2020 by David Silverberg