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.
Accordingly, Congress is in no position to give up its Constitutional right to determine spending; it just needs to do so in a way true to our founders’ intent that we would be a nation of laws and not men. This means adherence to a process, and that’s where I think the bill by Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., got it right in finding a middle course on infrastructure spending. It requires Congress to formally authorize the projects proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers and lays out requirements that they need to meet. This more balanced approach maintains the ability of each branch of government to keep the others in line and now makes sure that whenever taxpayer dollars are spent on infrastructure, Congress gives the final go-ahead.
Ultimately, I think Shuster’s bill is a step forward for taxpayers because it builds a process for more effective government spending and works to restore the constitutional balance of power between branches. And let’s all think on that — more effective and balanced is something Washington could use a lot more of these days.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.