Saturday, April 21, 2007

Water Pork from Taxpayers for Common Sense

Volume XII No. 5 - April 30, 2007

Lawmakers this week passed a $16.5 billion water project bill (H.R. 1495), containing more than 800 parochial pork barrel projects for virtually every Congressional district in the nation. This bill has it all: from $1.8 billion to build seven unnecessary new navigation locks on the Upper Mississippi River (pdf) (Sec. 8003) to studying the navigation impacts of building the infamous “Don Young’s Way” bridge project in Alaska (Sec. 4005), to $55 million for pumping sand (pdf) to maintain Imperial Beach, CA for the next 50 years (Sec. 1001 (9)).

In a race to get this long stalled bill approved (they've been working on it since 2002), congressional leadership seemed to forget about the fundamental flaws that Hurricane Katrina exposed in the way the Corps of Engineers develops, designs and constructs this country’s water resource projects. In the starkest terms, Katrina showed us (pdf) that the time is long passed to end the political spoils system that has driven water project investment for more than a century. We need a modern, accountable and prioritized system to develop and award projects. It’s a message that Congress has failed to grasp.

Almost as an afterthought, lawmakers passed an amendment by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom Petri (R-WI), and Peter Welch (D-VT) that directs the Corps of Engineers to update archaic rules (pdf) that govern how water projects are developed and selected. The outdated current rules (Principles & Guidelines), for example, encourage the Corps to build levees that protect undeveloped low-lying areas to spur economic development rather than building higher and stronger levees where there are actually people and property to protect. Disco died, come back to life and died again since 1983, the last time these rules were updated.

The Senate will now consider its own bill, which includes an amendment by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and John McCain (R-AZ) that would make the Corps more accountable to the public through truly independent peer review for costly, controversial or critical projects. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is looking to add to the $15 billion price tag by including more projects in the bill for “acute needs.” (pdf)

But there is no acute need for billions more in water projects. The Corps already has a whopping $58 billion backlog of projects they haven’t built yet, and will get only $2 billion in construction funding this year. To add more than $16 billion in new projects will just add more competition for the precious few construction dollars lying around. The acute need is for serious reform. Congress should require the Corps to prioritize projects and funnel money to the projects that will benefit the nation the most. Absent such a system, Congress and the Corps don’t even know which projects should be first on the list. When that happens, decisions are based on politics rather than need.

The Administration, which has rattled the veto saber recently, left it sheathed for this bill. Considering the well deserved public relations hit this Administration took for its Katrina response, you might think reforming the agency that built the New Orleans levees would be a top priority.

Breaking the nearly two-century old iron triangle of water pork in this country (we have a copy of an 1836 House Ways & Means Committee report documenting 25 wasteful Corps projects) is going to take a lot more. Katrina exposed the costly consequences of our existing parochial water project system. Now Congress needs to take the necessary steps make the Corps of Engineers more accountable.

Going on at This Week

The Senate this week introduced its own standards regarding how it will handle earmarks in appropriations bill.

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