WRDA: What Does $8.2 Billion Buy?
This evening, the House is expected to vote on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (H.R.3080), which authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to construct various projects around the country and assist with a variety of local projects. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the bill would cost $8.2 billion over the next decade. While better than similar legislation passed by the Senate in May, the bill contains “glaring shortcomings” that make it unworthy of conservative support.
The Heritage Foundation’s Emily Goff writes the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee “decision to include reform provisions is a refreshing change of course.” There is a concern, however, that “some of the reforms could either fail to deliver on their promises or introduce new complications.”
The Corps has a $60-80 billion project backlog. In an attempt to clear the backlog, the House bill’s “deauthorization provision requires the Corps to report $12 billion worth of projects to delist.” Unfortunately, that “amounts to less than one-third of the backlog; identifying and deauthorizing an amount closer to $30 billion or $45 billion would prove more effective in reducing the backlog.”
The House will have the opportunity to vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) that would expand the deauthorization of back logged projects from $12 to $35 billion. The amendment would also allow projects authorized in the 2007 bill, which contained more than 800 earmarks, to be deauthorized. That amendment is deserving of conservative support.
While the bill does not contain earmarks, it does require “congressional authorization of project studies and construction instead of ceding this authority to the Corps.” There is a very real concern, however, that the statutory criteria are too weak. Additionally, “complications could arise from the Corps’s pro-construction bias, lawmakers’ eagerness to approve projects, and their response when non-federal entities in their districts complain about not receiving construction authorization.”
Additionally, the bill “fails to address the [harbor maintenance tax’s (HMT)] underlying problems: cross-subsidies, the tax’s inherent flaws, and a lack of project prioritization.” The bill also creates an “emerging harbor” category, directing as much as 10 percent of the funding to ports with less than 1,000,000 tons of traffic. According to the most recent port data, that would be a set-aside for ports ranked 136th and less in traffic, which is hardly a national priority. Instead, “Lawmakers should lay the groundwork now for fundamental reform of the financing of port maintenance.”
Goff explains “The Corps needs fewer areas of responsibility and more prioritization—not more money. Despite the Corps’s Civil Works Program having a $6.9 billion average annual budget between 2000 and 2013, its project backlog has grown from 800 projects totaling $46 billion to over 1,000 projects totaling over $60 billion. Further, the Corps received $25.5 billion in supplemental funding alone between 2003 and 2012.”
To be clear, the House bill has included some positive reforms: no earmarks, curbs excessive project study, and considers the private sector. Nonetheless, as Heritage explained earlier this year, “it still contains numerous shortcomings and questionable provisions.”
For conservatives, those glaring shortcomings will make a conference committee with a significantly worse Senate bill even more difficult. Rarely is conservative policy advanced in conference committees, and there is little reason to expect things will change this time around, as Senate conferees will fight to increase spending and weaken already insufficient reforms.