Pork: Rotten to the Corps

Editorial

A group of Senators has introduced legislation that could stop more than $15 billion of water projects and increase the accountability for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Senators Robert Smith (R-N.H.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have introduced the Corps of Engineers Modernization and Improvement Act of 2002, in what could be the biggest battle over perceived “pork barrel” spending in years.

The bill proposes reforming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
by addressing the $52 billion backlog, improving project criteria, instituting
a system of independent peer review for projects and increasing non-federal
cost-sharing requirements.

The history of the United States Army engineers dates back
to 1776 when the Continental Congress organized an army with a chief engineer
and two assistants. Its mission is to provide quality, responsive engineering
services including planning, designing, building and operating water resources
and other civil works projects.

In the last 40 years, changes in values, politics and
economics have resulted in major alterations in the Corps’ water
resources program. The passage of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of
1986 signified a major shift in the nation’s attitude towards water
resources planning. This legislation attempted to shoulder more of the
financial and management responsibilities on nonfederal interests. However, it
has not worked out that way.

The Act authorized 377 new Corps of Engineers water projects
for construction or study. Since then, many more projects have been authorized
by subsequent WRDAs. It has been a growing concern that some of these projects
are unnecessary and benefit only a small group. While a WRDA approves projects,
studies and programs and authorizes appropriations, it does not appropriate the
funds. According to the Corps, the balance of funding needed to complete the
budgeted projects currently in the Construction, General (CG) program has grown
to an estimated $21 billion in fiscal year 2002.

The new legislation is intended to allow the Corps to build
good projects with large public benefits faster while ending federal
involvement for projects that benefit narrow special interests. In addition, it
would focus the Corps on its core missions of navigation, flood control and
environmental restoration by eliminating other projects. It also would
institute a system of independent peer review of large and controversial
projects with the Corps’ current planning process. President Bush
advocated similar reforms in his budget proposal introduced in February.

Unfortunately, it seems as if Congress has used the Corps to
spend on parochial projects with little benefits to taxpayers nationally. For
example, 58 beach replacement projects were earmarked in last year’s
Energy & Water Development Appropriations bill. The Modernization and
Improvement Act would cut the Federal cost-share on these projects from 65
percent to 35 percent. While the Act also would deauthorize projects whose
primary purpose is municipal supply and wastewater treatment, hopefully this
money would be put back into the State Revolving Funds or other funding
options.

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