The Water Resources Bill--A Return to Earmarks?

May 19, 2014

Proponents of the WRDA legislation have made much about the legislation being "earmark free." Now while the bill seems to comport with the current earmark moratorium, it does fund or expand previous earmarks. A headline in the Washington Examiner this morning said it all: Earmarks may be dead, but pet projects live on.

For instance, the bill increases the cost share for the Olmsted Lock and Dam in Kentucky from 50 percent to 85 percent. This project was first authorized in 1988 at a cost of $775 million, and it is still not finished and now costs $2.9 billion. Why would the federal government take on more of the burden of the project? The WRDA bill has 34 expansions (authorization for construction) and 8 project modifications (increases in spending) to existing projects in the Army Corps of Engineers' list of projects, but the real danger is the earmark-like process it sets up to authorize new projects going forward. Heritage Foundation analyst Emily Goff cautioned:

It remains to be seen whether the new process for authorizing projects set up in this bill will result in unforeseen problems. But the bill avoids earmarks and maintains congressional oversight over projects. The transparency in listing the 34 newly authorized projects is also welcome. Yet conferees should have set up criteria that would limit these and future project authorizations to those of national importance, thereby refocusing the Corps's mission.

The legislation creates a new process to evade the Congressional earmark moratorium. The Corps of Engineers would essentially collect all of the requests for water resource development funding in the country and provide a list to Congress of all those that are eligible for funding. Congress would then choose from that list "to determine authorization priorities in future water resources development legislation." In other words, the Corps of Engineer would provide the menu of potential earmarks for Congress to choose from, but the final "priorities" to be included in law would be subject to the same set of pressures prevalent in the old system where power and seniority rank over merit in spending decisions.

That is specifically the sort of parochial-based, politics-laced decision-making process that the current earmark moratorium was meant to guard taxpayers against. Congress should be looking for ways to live within both the letter and spirit of the earmark moratorium, and not look for ways to evade it so that they can bring home the bacon to their constituents.