WRDA Ignites Scrum

GOP Makes All Requests Public

Posted May 30, 2008 at 5:58pm

House Members have asked the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to approve hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers projects worth billions of dollars months after Congress overrode a presidential veto of a similar package of water projects worth about $23 billion.

Many of the requests for the new Water Resources Development Act are simply to increase the amount of money that can be spent on projects that were approved in last year’s bill, while others seek tens of millions of dollars for new projects in Congressional districts around the country.

According to Transportation Committee staff, 107 Republicans and 163 Democrats have submitted a total of about 1,300 project requests since the committee announced in March that it would begin to assemble a new WRDA bill. The committee held a hearing on WRDA at the end of April but has not scheduled further action on the bill. Staff said it is not out of the question that Congress could pass the bill this year.

New earmark rules require all projects in the bill to be disclosed along with the name of the Member making the request and a certification that the Member has no financial interest in the project.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member, has taken disclosure one step further, releasing all Republican requests for projects under the WRDA bill. Roll Call reviewed more than 200 project requests from Republican Members seeking earmarks in a new WRDA bill.

The committee’s Democratic leadership denied Roll Call’s request to see Democratic WRDA project requests, arguing that they are equivalent to draft legislation and will not be available publicly until the final bill text is released. At that point, the letters will be made public for the Democratic projects that are included in the bill.

With no access to the Democratic request letters, and since most of the Republican letters don’t include a cost estimate, it is impossible to estimate the total value of the requests made by Members. But the letters Roll Call reviewed contained about 100 projects that included dollar figures, and those projects alone totaled more than $3 billion.

In many cases, the projects requested for a 2008 WRDA bill are simply expansions of projects approved in the 2007 WRDA bill.

For example, in 1999, Congress passed a WRDA bill authorizing $10 million for the Army Corps to provide water-supply and wastewater infrastructure to 20 counties in central West Virginia. Last year, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) inserted a provision into the 2007 WRDA bill expanding authorization for the project to $20 million and removing from the program two counties that are no longer in her Congressional district. She now has a request pending before the Transportation Committee to increase the authorization to $30 million.

Capito spokesman Jonathan Coffin said last week that the money the Congresswoman is seeking would fund only a tiny fraction of the water infrastructure needed in rural West Virginia. “Berkeley County and Morgan County are approaching 30 million apiece” in unfunded wastewater infrastructure needs, Coffin said. “The need is there, and we are in a situation where a lot of our municipalities can’t fund it on their own. They can’t even come close.”

In other cases, Members attribute project cost increases to rising fuel costs, project changes and even Congressional delays in approving funding.

During the WRDA debate last year, Mica and Transportation Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) pointed out that WRDA traditionally is passed every two years, but Congress had not passed a version since 2000, leaving a tremendous backlog of projects. Several sources said that delay has led to increased costs for some projects, and that the new WRDA bill is needed to make up for the authorizations that were not provided in the intervening years.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is requesting that the breakwater in Sitka Harbor that was authorized for $6.3 million in last year’s bill be increased to $10 million this year because “the cost has increased while WRDA floundered for five years.” Young also has a handful of new project requests, including $50 million for a water supply project in Wrangell, an Alaska town with a full-time population of less than 2,500. Young spokeswoman Meredith Kenny said all of the Congressman’s project requests had been made at the behest of the towns where the projects are located.

And in some cases the cost increases are attributed to the Army Corps itself. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) won approval last year for $37.2 million for a bridge over the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Chesapeake, Va. This year, he has requested increasing the approval to $44.3 million. His spokeswoman, Jessica Mancari, said in an e-mail, “the Army Corps of Engineers adjusted the estimated cost of the project, which prompted the additional request in funds.”

Steve Stockton, the corps’ director of civil works, told Roll Call that a corps cost estimate is not the same as an endorsement of a particular project.

“Members of Congress, when preparing their projects/proposals for consideration for authorization, often consult the Corps of Engineers for technical information on these projects and proposals (including modifications to previously authorized projects), which the Corps provides,” Stockton said in an e-mail. “That does not translate to an Administration position one way or another, on either these projects individually or the overall need for a WRDA.”

Most of the pending requests are for new projects, including $100 million for a reservoir in Alabama, $38 million to construct water storage wells in Collier County, Fla., and $800 million to dredge 40 miles of the Sabine-Neches Waterway along the Texas-Louisiana border.

The president vetoed the WRDA bill in November, arguing that “the bill’s excessive authorization for over 900 projects and programs exacerbates the massive backlog of ongoing corps construction projects, which will require an additional $38 billion in future appropriations to complete.” Bush argued that the bill did not set priorities for projects. “The authorization and funding of Federal water resources projects should be focused on those projects with the greatest merit that are also a Federal responsibility.”

The administration already has resumed that line of argument for the next WRDA bill. In April testimony before the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works John Paul Woodley Jr. said: “We should in 2008, I think, establish our priorities. … I think it’s very important as we go forward to work together with the administration to develop and execute a disciplined WRDA process that is fiscally responsible and based upon sound and enduring principles that reflect core values. We need to invest and not simply spend.”

But he received a stern reply from Oberstar, who said the notion that WRDA projects are not investments proved that “you either don’t understand or you’ve been directed to say something that you don’t believe in.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Oberstar said. “We’re just going to excuse you and give you absolution, and we’re going to go on and do the public’s business.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, called WRDA “a perpetual-motion machine to make work for the corps. … It allows lawmakers to take credit year after year for projects that may never see the light of day or a dollar of funding.”

Ellis said that since WRDA is an authorization bill only, all of the projects still need to get appropriations. Adding projects to the list simply creates “more mouths to feed,” he said, and reduces the amount of money that can be provided for the most critical projects.

Nevertheless, Ellis credited Republicans for making project requests public, and he called on Democrats to do the same. “Ranking member Mica and the Republicans are willing to expose what may be their dirty laundry, which is better than stuffing it at the bottom of the hamper and hoping nobody notices.”