In typical Washington fashion, lawmakers shoved an authorization for the Olmsted Lock and Dam Project—which, in this context looks a lot like an earmark—into the fast-moving, eleventh-hour deal ending the government shutdown and averting a debt crisis.
Olmsted is located where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet near the Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri borders. The Army Corps of Engineers was first authorized to study and construct this $775 million project in 1988. Twenty-five years later, the project is not finished and its cost has ballooned to $2.9 billion.
Olmsted is just one of a thousand projects sitting in the Corps’s $60 billion to $80 billion project backlog. The backlog represents the Corps’s inability to prioritize projects and Congress’s habit of gumming up water resources bills with parochial projects. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (H.R. 3080), which the House will consider next week, contains a deauthorization process for backlogged projects—but only for those authorized before 2007. The House should fix this problem to make real progress on the backlog.
Provisions in H.R. 3080 (and in the Senate-passed bill) would modify cost-share ratios between Washington and a project’s local sponsor, one of which could put taxpayers on the hook for more than half of the cost of Olmsted. When federal taxpayers foot most of the bill, a project’s local sponsors have little incentive to contain costs.
Lawmakers should uphold the long-standing cost-share ratios; they could go further by increasing the share of the non-federal entity to reduce the burden on taxpayers. In some cases—beach nourishment, for example—lawmakers should phase out the federal share entirely.
Though the Olmsted provision doesn’t actually spend money, it opens the door for Congress to appropriate more wasteful spending by the Corps, and it perpetuates a project that has suffered massive cost overruns, delays, and mistakes. With the country’s debt standing at nearly $17 trillion, reining in spending—not opening the floodgates—is the priority.
If Olmsted is that important to the citizens in the surrounding states that would benefit from the project, then they should be responsible for the cost, particularly given the tremendous cost escalation.
Next week, the House should reject such irresponsible provisions in H.R. 3080, and lawmakers should be permitted to offer amendments to the bill to fix the problems mentioned above and the bill’s other glaring shortcomings.