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A group of influential Senators have introduced legislation that, if enacted, could stop more than $15 billion of water projects and would increase accountability for the embattled U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a national budget organization.
In what is poised to be one of the biggest battles over pork barrel spending in recent years, Sens. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), introduced the Corps of Engineers Modernization and Improvement Act of 2002.
"This legislation will go a long way towards reining in out-of-control pork barrel spending at the Army Corps of Engineers," said Jeff Stein, policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The bill will end the idea that 'pork is king' in Washington and that any lawmaker who wants a ditch, dam or dike in their district should get their project despite the cost to hardworking taxpayers."
The Smith-Feingold-McCain bill proposes reforming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in several ways. The bill addresses the $52 billion construction backlog for Corps projects and the lack of credibility in Corps project planning studies. President Bush advocated similar reforms in the budget proposal he introduced in February, which focuses funding on ongoing projects within the Corps' main mission areas, stemming "mission creep", and planning to release a proposal for "independent review of significant projects" later this year.
"Wasteful spending cuts across the aisle," added Stein. "To reform an agency the size and scope of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will require leadership of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle as well as the leadership of President Bush."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a $4 billion civil works program with three primary missions: navigation, flood damage reduction and environmental protection. However, in recent years, the agency with support from Congress, has sought to expand its mission into water supply, wastewater treatment and managing construction of public schools.
"Rather than throwing more money at a broken system, Sens. Smith, Feingold and McCain are creating solutions," continued Stein. "This bill will allow the Corps to build good projects faster while ending federal involvement in wasteful projects that benefit narrow special interests."
Last week, other Senators complained at Senate Budget Committee hearings that their water projects did not receive enough funding in President Bush's budget, which proposes a 12 percent cut for the Corps. The Smith-Feingold-McCain Corps reform bill also tackles Congress' inability to restrain itself from spending on parochial projects with little benefits for taxpayers nationally.
"The reluctance of Members of Congress to criticize wasteful spending has led to the $52 billion construction backlog, a situation where everyone loses because no projects are getting built," continued Stein.
It is not unusual for the Corps of Engineers to take several decades to build a project. A TCS analysis of government data on the current projects under construction reveals that the typical Corps project that has been approved for construction is only 24 percent complete. There are 43 projects that were authorized for construction in 1986 that still require an additional $4 billion to complete. The backlog severely affects the Corps' ability to properly maintain existing infrastructure.
Highlighted reforms of the Smith-Feingold-McCain Corps of Engineers Modernization and Improvement Act of 2002:
Deauthorizes wasteful water projects -- Speeds up completion of construction for Corps projects with large public benefits by deauthorizing low priority and economically wasteful projects.
Independent review of wasteful projects -- Makes the Corps more accountable for its actions by instituting a system of independent peer review of large and controversial projects that is concurrent with the Corps' current project planning process.
Beneficiaries of projects should pay the majority of the cost
Increases non-federal cost-sharing requirements for projects where the beneficiaries are primarily local and easily identifiable.