If your boss handed you a to-do list that had projects to work on from 25 years ago, you’d be fairly concerned about the prospect of getting all of them done. It would be even worse if the boss kept giving you new projects that also needed to be completed. While it may be a bit of a stretch, this is essentially the problem the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had to solve in writing the latest Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
With a backlog of authorized projects that would cost between $60 billion and $80 billion and some, such as the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, sitting on the books for 20 years without moving forward, there were a lot of different claims on infrastructure funding. Yet I think the resulting WRDDA bill is an important step forward in answering the questions above because it sets out a new process for Congress to efficiently fund water-related infrastructure — while at the same time ensuring that the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches is maintained. To that end, I’d offer two quick thoughts.
First, efficient government spending on infrastructure is a holy grail of sorts that is rarely attained at the federal, state or local level. Over the years, my home state of South Carolina has dealt with this sort of problem. Traffic was jammed in growing areas, but other areas where senior state senators lived just so happened to have spectacular and quiet four-lane roads. We have all seen funding by political might rather than need, yet for our country to be competitive in the 21st century we must prioritize that need.
As a consequence, when I was in Congress 15 years ago, I joined with other members in arguing that the process of political earmarking wasn’t efficient or fair to taxpayers. In 2007, for example, the water bill contained more than 900 earmarks, costing taxpayers roughly $23 billion. This earmarking process came to an end in 2010, and as this is the first water resources bill since then, it is noticeably earmark free. What’s even better is that WRRDA gets rid of $12 billion in legacy spending and sets up new, transparent parameters for what projects deserve funding in the future. It’s a small but tangible step toward the goal of allocating taxpayer dollars in a way that is more transparent, accountable and efficient.
Second, it takes these actions for the taxpayer, while also preserving the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches in this area. In my view, under both Republican and Democratic rule, the executive branch is becoming too imperial. The Founding Fathers were genius in their design of government with each branch being a check upon the other. But, ultimately, to be a check, each branch must also be equal.