The man widely expected to take over a powerful Capitol Hill committee later this spring is known as a fierce and cunning advocate for his state, a master legislator who doesn’t hesitate to work the system to achieve his political goals.
That could spell very bad news for Georgia and one of its top Washington priorities: winning the edge in its decades-long water rights fight with Alabama and Florida.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is likely to be selected next month by his Republican colleagues as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.
The 83-year-old has kept Georgia’s lawyers and congressional delegation in a constant state of paranoia over the past two decades by quietly using government spending bills and other must-pass legislation to aid Alabama’s position in the tri-state water fight.
Georgia lawmakers have mostly thwarted Shelby’s under-the-radar moves by banding together and going over his head to party leaders. But Shelby’s likely promotion could change the political dynamic on Capitol Hill, where committee chairmen have outsized power to look out for their interests.
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“We’re just trying to make sure that there’s equity in the distribution of the water,” Shelby recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve got to protect our interests.”
Georgia, Alabama and Florida have duked it out for the better part of three decades over water usage in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basins, which both originate upstream of Atlanta and flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
Alabama and Florida argue that Atlanta, which has seen its population explode in recent decades, and southwest Georgia agriculture have taken more than their fair share of water. That, they say, has harmed the environment and economic development in the two states, particularly the oyster industry in the Florida Panhandle’s Apalachicola Bay.
Georgia says it has been a responsible steward and that major conservation efforts, particularly in metro Atlanta, have been effective in recent years. It has argued in court that none of the remedies being proposed by its neighbors would actually lead to more water flowing downstream and would mainly just hamstring Georgia economically.
Talk to lawmakers from the three states on Capitol Hill about the water battle and they all more or less claim to want the same thing.
They say the governors of their states should strike a compact setting mutually agreeable terms for water usage in the two river basins to put three decades and tens of millions of dollars of litigation behind them.
Despite a Supreme Court-appointed “special master” all but begging the governors to do so, deep mistrust between the states has made such a deal elusive. So multiple legal battles have continued, including one legal tributary recently argued before the high court.
Georgia lawmakers want Congress to stay out of the water fight. The state has seen a series of favorable outcomes in court in recent years, and local lawmakers don’t want the legislative branch to do anything that could halt Georgia’s momentum.
“No one’s doing more for water stewardship” than Georgia, said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, whose 7th Congressional District borders Lake Lanier, the reservoir at the heart of the water feud. “No one’s doing more for water conservation, retention or storage. All the facts are on our side.”
But Alabama and Florida lawmakers see things differently. Some think Georgia isn’t working in good faith. The status quo benefits Atlanta and Georgia agriculture, they say, so Georgia has little incentive to negotiate a compact.
Alabama Congressman Robert Aderholt pointed to Georgia lawmakers’ efforts to remove water rights language from an infrastructure bill in 2016 as a sign.
It “tells you that the merit of the so called ‘water wars’ is not on their side,” the Republican told The Montgomery Advertiser at the time.
First elected to the Senate in 1987, Shelby had a reputation as an expert earmarker before Congress banned the practice in 2011. Since then, he has found other ways to exert his influence as the most senior lawmaker from the Southeast, occasionally angering other senators, including fellow Republicans, for his tough tactics.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., unloaded on Shelby in 2015 after he said the Alabaman folded a provision into a spending bill “in the middle of the night in the worst, disgraceful fashion” that would have removed restrictions on purchasing Russian-made rocket engines.
McCain told Politico that Shelby didn’t talk it over with him. “That’s not the way Senator Shelby does business,” he said.
On the water rights issue, Shelby has used his position as a senior appropriator to include language in bills that he thinks could bring Georgia to the negotiating table with the other governors.
“I was always hoping the governors would work this out between the three states,” Shelby said last month.
He’s deployed a few variations of language nudging specific federal agencies, including the Justice Department and Army Corps of Engineers, to take or not take specific actions related to Georgia’s water usage.
He drew then-Congressman Nathan Deal into a fight in 2006 when he folded language into a spending bill that would have barred the corps from updating water use plans for the basins, a major priority for Atlanta at the time. The future governor and his Georgia colleagues scrambled at the last minute to strike the provision from the legislation as it moved across the House floor, only narrowly succeeding on a 211-201 vote.
“It was just unbelievable that the appropriators would do something like this without telling anyone,” Deal said at the time. “This is the kind of behind-the-scenes arrangement that just isn’t proper.”
Similar tussles were waged nearly every year since on appropriations bills, water policy measures and even a bipartisan weather forecasting bill.
A major win for Alabama and Florida came in 2013, when Shelby’s colleague, then-U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, folded an amendment into a water policy bill that urged Congress to intervene in the water fight should it not be resolved among the three governors.
That infuriated the Georgia delegation — Florida cited the amendment in its case against Georgia currently before the Supreme Court — and they stepped up their fight in the years since.
Ever since a 2015 blowup, the Georgia delegation has been able to contain Shelby’s efforts. But that could all change in the months ahead.
Shelby’s promotion is all but assured in the seniority-focused Senate, and he has backup on Senate Appropriations from Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, since the two states frequently work together on the issue. No Georgia lawmaker sits on that Senate committee.
Shelby also recently joined the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, giving him a seat at the table this year as the panel crafts the next bill to oversee the country’s water infrastructure. He has a very well-placed ally in the Trump administration, with Sessions now the attorney general. With Congress’ blessing, he could send lawyers to investigate Georgia’s water usage levels.
Georgia lawmakers differ publicly about what Shelby’s expected promotion could mean.
Some are projecting confidence. They say Georgia’s lawmakers are well placed elsewhere to block him and that the state’s strategy won’t change because it has both legal and political momentum on its side. Party leaders know very well that Georgia lawmakers are united on the issue and aren’t afraid to flex their muscle, said Congressman Doug Collins of Gainesville.
“That doesn’t scare me,” Collins said of Shelby’s expected promotion. “My recommendation to him is let’s sit all three governors in a room, let’s get this off. Because if we start legislating this kind of stuff, it’ll all of a sudden start getting beyond Georgia, Florida and Alabama.”
But others admit that day-to-day maneuvering could become a lot tougher, since committee chairmen control levers of power.
“We’re disadvantaged in ways that we have never been disadvantaged before,” Woodall said. “That said, that’s all political process. The facts are on our side.”
The posturing on Capitol Hill comes as the states wait for the Supreme Court to rule on the Georgia-Florida case that was argued before the justices in January.
Shelby in recent weeks has played coy about his ambitions out of respect for the retiring chairman. But he has said in the recent past that he’ll always keep his legislative options open when it comes to the water fight.
“I was always hoping the governors would work this out between the three states,” Shelby said. But, he added, “I’m just looking at everything.”