Taxpayers Get Hosed In Water Resources Fight

Last week, the Senate took up its version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016, S. 2848, which authorizes water-related infrastructure projects carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. This was an important opportunity for Senators to impose much-needed reforms at the Army Corps. However, any hopes for a departure from the business-as-usual practices that swamped the agency in the first place were quickly dashed when the Senate declined to take up pro-taxpayer amendments offered by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

Previous to the recent earmark ban, WRDA was considered a veritable “all-you-can-eat” pork buffet for legislators who wanted to bring home the taxpayer-funded bacon. Many Army Corps activities were funded on the basis of political favoritism, and would have failed had they been considered on their merits. The Army Corps suffered from lack of accountability as overdue, over-budget, and often wasteful construction consumed the agency. Over time, the Army Corps backlog has grown to more than 1,000 projects with a pricetag of at least $62 billion.

You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t a new phenomenon. Steve Ellis, Vice President at the Taxpayers for Common Sense, details a long history of wasteful spending at The Daily Signal:

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.

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.”

So, while the Senate deserves credit for adhering to the earmark ban in the 2016 WRDA, it’s disappointing that when given the chance to address the major systemic issues that have plagued the Army Corps, now for almost two hundred years, the Senate took a major step backward.

S. 2838 obligates funds for projects that aren’t cost-justified, it moves away from much-needed deauthorizations – keeping questionable projects on the books for long after their shelf-life should have expired. Further, it lets non-federal interests call the shots when it comes to federal tax dollars, and retroactively rolls back the harbor deepening cost share program – giving those most invested in the project less skin-in-the-game.

As we noted in our key vote alert:

Unfortunately, for taxpayers, S. 2848 makes little attempt to remedy the Army Corps longstanding problems. Instead, it authorizes $12 billion in new projects and imposes policies that both exacerbate these challenges and ensure taxpayers will be on the hook for questionable projects for years to come.

Even worse, for the chamber that’s supposed to be the “deliberative body,” there was little deliberation around S. 2848. Senator Flake filed seven amendments aimed at reforming the Army Corps and reducing wasteful spending, yet none of them received consideration on the Senate floor, marking a major missed opportunity to improve the bill.

Here’s just a few of the great amendments taxpayers missed out on:

  • Amendment #5012 would have ensured the Army Corps submits an annual deauthorization report by withholding nonessential travel funds.

  • Amendment #5013 would have preserved the current harbor deepening cost share, saving taxpayers $430 million.

  • Amendment #5014 would have brought the authorization for Low Priority Studies and Construction in line with the President’s request, saving taxpayers $808 million. Faced with massive deficits and an already insurmountable Army Corps backlog, it makes sense not to plus-up authorizations for low priority projects.

  • Amendment #5016 would have imposed prudent guidelines and limits for submission of new water resource projects to Congress for approval.

  • Amendment #5018 would have eliminated both the Army Corps and Environmental Protection Agency beach renourishment projects. Beach renourishment is the practice of dumping more sand on beaches that have experienced erosion. Renourishment is expensive, ineffective, and may actually be aggravating erosion problems. In essence, it’s a tourism and real estate subsidy for coastal states paid for by taxpayers who could live thousands of miles away.

Congress has little time before the legislative calendar wraps up, and major economic challenges loom on the horizon. Legislators – and taxpayers – can’t afford to miss out on the savings that come with reducing waste and increasing accountability. Taxpayers have already waited nearly two centuries for the U.S. Army Corps to get on track and sadly, after the Senate took a pass, it looks like they’ll have to keep waiting.