Behind virtually every U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project is one or several lawmakers who try to use the agency to deliver unnecessary and wasteful projects back home.
S. 2848, the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), currently being considered by the Senate, is a prime example. The bill contains a nearly $0.5 billion roll back of the harbor deepening cost share that has been in place since 1986. The provision is even retroactive, so ports that agreed to pay more are going to realize that windfall.
There’s another provision that would make taxpayers (without congressional say-so) build bigger flood damage reduction structures than were effectively in place before a disaster—whether it makes sense or not.
WRDA is the bill that sets policy for the Corps and authorizes projects. Once authorized, lawmakers and project sponsors can hunt for appropriations for their favored projects. But after an earmark moratorium took effect in 2011, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) denied lawmakers the opportunity to stuff their favored projects into the bill.
This created a system, still in development, where non-federal interests pitched projects and the Corps evaluated them. In both WRRDA and the House- and Senate-proposed WRDA 2016, there are disturbing provisions that seem to be transferring the direction of Corps spending to local interests while retaining costs at the federal level.
This is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a very interesting history, one older than the republic itself.
The Corps traces its origins to the fortifications at Bunker Hill in 1775. The Corps was mostly comprised of French engineers until the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) was created in 1802, 20 years before any other engineering schools were established in the U.S. In 1824, a decade after the War of 1812, Congress put Corps engineers to work building “civil works” projects.
Even in those early days, the Corps took plenty of heat for wasting taxpayer money. An 1836 House Ways and Means Committee report criticized 25 wasteful Corps projects, noting that all were over budget—many by 50 percent or more. That report was the beginning of a love-hate relationship between Congress and the Corps that has lasted for nearly two centuries.
In the beginning, the Corps built navigation projects, dredging and removing obstructions from the nation’s waterways. Eventually, it turned to flood control, building levees, dams, and other flood control structures. After World War II, the Corps was charged with beach renourishment and damage reduction. Later, the Corps embarked on environmental restoration. Navigation, flood, and storm damage reduction, and environmental restoration are now the Corps’ primary mission areas.
The way former Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., sees things, “The Corps is an agency that likes projects … give them a dollar and they’ll push it any way you want.”
President Harry Truman’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes observed: “It is to be doubted whether any federal agency in the history of this country has so wantonly wasted money on worthless projects as has the Corps of Army Engineers. … No more lawless or irresponsible federal group than the Corps of Army Engineers has ever attempted to operate in the United States, whether without or within the law.”
Rather than building in a lot of overhead, the Corps’ budget largely consists of projects, and employees are billed against projects. That method makes sense at a private firm, but in a government agency with dozens of district offices around the country, it means a lot of waste.
Districts need work to keep staff, whether the work makes sense or not. An Army inspector general report in 2000 minced few words, stating there are “strong indications that institutional bias might extend throughout the Corps. Advocacy, growth, the customer service model, and the Corps reliance on external funding combined to create an atmosphere where objectivity in its analyses was placed in jeopardy.”
Shortly after President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he drew up a “hit list” of wasteful and environmentally destructive water projects, stopping all water project authorizations from going forward. When President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, he went even further, demanding consistent cost-sharing rules to ensure that non-federal beneficiaries of Corps projects had skin in the game before he would approve another water project authorization.
This stalemate between the executive and legislative branches wasn’t resolved until the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. That act created consistent cost-sharing for various types of projects across the board, moving Corps projects away from pure pork. A Wharton study, “Changing the Price of Pork,” found that applying cost-sharing had reduced the total cost of the bill by 35 percent ($3 billion), while also cutting down on special interests’ appetites.
Other reforms followed. The Clinton administration reduced the federal share of costs for pumping sand on beaches. After the levee engineering failures from Hurricane Katrina, coupled with a few high-profile projects with bogus economics that demonstrated the need for monitoring the Corps, the Bush administration got independent peer review for costly, consequential, and controversial projects.
Some—even much—of the federal program belongs at the state or local level. Yet Congress continues to create many authorizations in which non-federal interests jump-start a study project or even operations and maintenance by providing the Corps what amounts to a no-interest loan. Those interests are eligible to be repaid “subject to future appropriations.”
This future appropriations language is so Congress doesn’t run afoul of Antideficiency Act restrictions on an agency promising cash that Congress has not approved. But the idea that some well-heeled special interest or state will front the cash and Congress won’t repay is laughable.
Think about it: instead of the executive and legislative branches setting priorities on where federal dollars go, non-federal interests with cash decide what’s important. That’s anti-prioritization of federal resources, and since it will all be repaid, the system doesn’t save money either.
The Water Resources Development Act of 2016 is chock-full of wasteful provisions. One would require the Corps to take on a Louisiana port deepening project that isn’t cost-justified. There’s also a 15-year get-out-of-jail-free card for inland waterway construction projects that haven’t been receiving funds and should be subject to automatic deauthorization after about seven years. These projects haven’t been funded because all the inland waterway funds have been going to build the Olmsted Locks project, but a decades old authorization should expire after a while. These are just a few examples.
Tracing back to its origins, the Corps has a French motto: Essayons, or “Let us try.” When it comes to spending, sometimes the response to the Corps should be no. Taxpayers deserve better, not only from the Corps, but especially from our elected leaders.