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House Water Resources Bill Lacks Critical Reforms

by Nan Swift / /

NTU urges all Representatives to vote “NO” on H.R. 5303, the “Water Resources Development Act of 2016.” This legislation falls short of the much-needed reform the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires to avoid further wasteful spending.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a poor track record as a steward of taxpayer dollars. Overdue, over budget, unnecessary, and often politically motivated projects have become standard operating procedure. By last count, according to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report, the Army Corps’ backlog extended to more than 1,000 authorized studies and construction projects. Estimates vary, but it could cost more than $62 billion to clear the slate. Of course, the utility of many of these projects has long expired, yet they remain on the books. This ongoing problem is compounded by an inherently wasteful approach to project authorization and an acute lack of Congressional oversight.

It's worth noting that this legislation does less long-term damage to the fiscal outlook of the Army Corps than its Senate counterpart, both in terms of dollars authorized and misguided policies. Taxpayers also support the decision of the House Rules Committee to strike Section 108 in the Committee-reported version, which would have made Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund spending mandatory, or direct, spending. Particularly for an agency in need of more Congressional oversight, not less, putting any spending on “autopilot” is a bad idea.

Unfortunately, H.R. 5303 still misses the mark when it comes to the wholesale reforms taxpayers need. Despite the deauthorization of $5 billion in previously authorized projects, by tacking on even more projects and feasibility studies, the legislation does little to alleviate the Army Corps’ backlog, ensuring that taxpayers will be on the hook for questionable projects for years to come. The legislation fails to help the Army Corps prioritize projects and focus efforts towards executing its core mission. The authorization of recreational and urban revitalization projects under the auspices of flood control are a worrying indication of serious mission creep and an expansion of federal responsibility for what should properly be state and local infrastructure concerns. Finally, wasteful beach renourishment will continue under H.R. 5303, and the bill makes permanent a provision providing maintenance dredging funds for “emerging” ports.

The 2016 WRDA could have offered an important opportunity to remedy the Army Corps’ longstanding problems. However, without sufficient cost-saving and accountability measures, H.R. 5303 will saddle taxpayers with more unsustainable long term costs. Before Representatives authorize new projects, they should undertake the systemic changes necessary to right the agency.

Roll call votes on H.R. 5303 will be included in our annual Rating of Congress and a “NO” vote will be considered the pro-taxpayer position.

If you have any questions, please contact NTU Federal Affairs Manager Nan Swift at (703) 683-5700