Ten years ago this month, the Cedar River overflowed into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, destroying a wide swath of the city’s downtown and residential neighborhoods.
The flooding caused $5.4 billion in property damage, according to the city. It affected more than 1,000 blocks of homes and businesses, City Hall, the county courthouse and hundreds of other buildings.
The flood took an emotional toll on Cedar Rapids as well. The city purchased nearly 1,400 damaged properties and demolished them, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said in a phone interview.
“That particular process was devastating for the community,” Pomeranz said. “People losing everything they have.”
By 2014, the city and its residents had rebuilt homes, businesses and government buildings. But they hadn’t built levees to keep out future floods.
Congress authorized $73.1 million in 2014 for the Army Corps of Engineers to construct its share of a $112.5 million flood protection system. Cedar Rapids is still waiting for the money.
The Cedar Rapids project, like many around the country, is falling between the cracks of congressional authorization and appropriations. The funding gap is about $96 billion, according to the corps.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, has voiced his satisfaction at getting the Water Resources Development Act back to a two-year authorization cycle — 2014, 2016 and, he hopes, 2018 — after a seven-year lapse.
But appropriators aren’t following suit, leaving dozens of projects, including the one in Cedar Rapids, worth tens of billions of dollars unfunded just in the past decade.
“Getting something authorized is all well and good, but one must get it funded,” said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations for the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Cedar Rapids project was part of the 2014 WRDA that authorized $15.4 billion for 34 flood control, harbor, ecosystem restoration and other projects. That bill was also the first WRDA enacted after Republicans banned earmarks in 2010.
Passing the law required deft maneuvering in the Capitol and won praise from many corners. But it didn’t deliver flood protection for Cedar Rapids. Congress didn’t appropriate any money for the city’s flood control system of levees and pump stations in fiscal 2015 and 2016 spending laws.
Congress even passed another WRDA in December 2016 that asked the corps to expedite the Cedar Rapids project. But the fiscal 2017 and 2018 spending laws also didn’t provide funds.
The two-year authorization cycle is meant to provide predictability for states and local governments that depend on the corps’ support. But it rarely works out that way.
Of the 64 projects worth $25.3 billion that Congress authorized this decade, 49 of them — Cedar Rapids included — haven’t received any federal money, according to a review of the corps’ work plans and spending bills for the past four fiscal years. The federal government has spent only $689.1 million on the projects, 2.7 percent of the authorization.
The finding is based on an analysis of the 2014 and 2016 bills and the corps’ construction accounts.
The gap between authorizations and appropriations isn’t unique to WRDA projects.
“There are hundreds of examples where the appropriation doesn’t mean the authorized level,” said Matt Dennis, senior vice president of the lobbying firm CRD Associates and former staffer for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
But the current WRDA problem exists against a backdrop of a president who campaigned on rebuilding infrastructure and a Congress that raised the spending caps in fiscal 2018 and 2019, giving lawmakers more room to provide funds.
The irony is that the WRDA still offers something close to earmarks, the tool that smoothed the way for infrastructure spending until Republicans banned them in 2010.
Lawmakers have appropriated funding for, at most, two of 30 projects authorized in 2016: a Charleston Harbor deepening project with $70.6 million in appropriations and a California flood control program known as the American River Common Features with $73.2 million of appropriations in fiscal 2017 and 2018. The latter project was also authorized in 2014.
Appropriators are spending much less than authorizers are suggesting, but they are also providing significantly more than presidents have been seeking recently.
In the past 10 years, spending bills have provided an average of one-third more than the president requested, according to Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.
“We’re spending all we can,” said Idaho Republican Mike Simpson, chairman of the House Energy-Water Appropriations panel. “The problem is that the administration — both the previous administration and this one in their budget request — keeps underfunding them and we have to pump money into it. They need a better number from the administration. … It needs more funding.”
Appropriators work within the spending caps on each subcommittee bill — so-called 302(b) allocations. Any increase to corps funding requires a corresponding cut to programs in the Energy-Water bill, like Energy or Defense programs, Simpson said.
Pieces of the puzzle
President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to rebuild American infrastructure, and administration officials listed it as one of the top three priorities.
But Trump spent the first year of his presidency on two other priorities: health care and taxes. By the time the White House released an infrastructure proposal in February 2018 that called for $200 billion in federal spending to spark $1.5 trillion in total spending, lawmakers’ interest had waned.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last month it was unlikely Congress would enact a law this year. Key Republican senators have said the same thing.
Congressional Republicans and the administration say infrastructure projects would come in the more routine bills: Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and another authorization of WRDA.
On June 6, the House passed a water resources bill, 408-2; last month the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved its version. Republicans are poised to use passage of a bill to take credit for moving toward Trump’s infrastructure goal.
“President Trump has called for a comprehensive infrastructure initiative,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso said at the May 22 markup of his 2018 WRDA bill. The bill “is a significant piece of that initiative.”
In some ways, they have a point.
WRDA is an essential step for corps projects that deepen harbors, construct locks and dams, protect flood plains and preserve ecosystems. By the time projects are authorized, they’ve been vetted by the corps.
But that doesn’t always carry the day.
28 years and counting
Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, has studied the Corpus Christi Ship Channel in Texas. He said it’s a prime example of the harm slow and inconsistent federal funding can cause.
What was then called the House Public Works and Transportation Committee asked the corps to conduct an initial study of the project in 1990. The corps completed a reconnaissance report in 1994 and a chief’s report in 2003 that recommended spending $73.5 million of federal money for the $153.8 million project.
By the time Congress authorized it in 2007, the costs had ballooned to an $87.8 million federal commitment to a $188.1 million project.
The corps used $58.5 million of its construction budget in fiscal 2011 for the project, but it had to review the proposal again before it could start construction.
Federal law requires reevaluating a project’s cost if more than three fiscal years have passed between completion of the chief’s report and construction, according to the corps’ 2012 review plan.
The review found the initial authorization was inadequate. In 2013, the corps approved a revised plan that estimated the total cost at $353.2 million. The 2014 WRDA authorized a federal share of $182.6 million.
The corps’ fiscal 2018 work plan provided $22.9 million for the project. But that amount won’t be enough.
The local share, meanwhile, is ready to go, DeGood said.
“They’ve got that money set aside. It’s in an account,” DeGood said. “They’re just literally sitting on their hands. They’re waiting for Congress.”
DeGood blames the 28-years-and-counting saga on inconsistent funding. At every step, whether for study or construction, a lack of federal funds stopped the program from moving forward. The lengthy process underscores problems with corps projects writ large, he said.
“So this is the problem with WRDA … it’s an authorization bill, it’s not a reauthorization bill,” he said. “And that means that every time you pass WRDA legislation and you include new projects, you’re just adding them to the pile. You haven’t cleared the projects for study or construction that you’ve authorized in previous WRDA bills. … We authorize and they just sit there.”
The solution, DeGood said, is to appropriate more money for construction.
Appropriators did, in fact, provide a record $2.1 billion for the corps’ construction account in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending law, an 11 percent boost from the $1.9 billion appropriated in fiscal 2017. That’s against a backlog of $96 billion of authorized spending, according to the corps.
Among the unfunded projects in the 2014 WRDA bill alone are:
• A storm mitigation project in Louisiana called Morganza to the Gulf, authorized for $6.7 billion;
• The Mid-Chesapeake Bay environmental restoration project in Maryland, authorized for $1.2 billion;
• The Sutter Basin flood control project in California, authorized for $255.3 million;
• Freeport Harbor in Texas, authorized for $121 million;
• The Jordan Creek flood control project in Springfield, Missouri, authorized for $13.56 million.
Complicating matters further is that water resources projects go through two vetting procedures. The corps submits so-called chief’s reports showing that the benefits are at least as great as the cost.
But the Office of Management and Budget puts projects through a second cost-benefit analysis. To include most projects in a budget request, the OMB must find the benefits are 2.5 times the cost.
Both authorizing and appropriating committee members complain about the difficulty in divining how OMB arrives at its conclusions.
“For many of our constituents, how the corps actually deploys its funds and rehabilitates our waterway infrastructure is confusing and ultimately a disappointing maze,” Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said at a committee hearing.
The cycles of corps studies and congressional authorization of those studies and then of construction often end without construction taking place, she said.
“Nothing really happens. And usually the refrain from the corps is that the project failed to pass muster under the OMB’s benefit-cost ratio,” she said.
But as long as appropriators are willing to pay for only a portion of what’s been authorized, there has to be a process for making the choice.
“OMB has to have some way to select projects based on limited funding resources,” OMB spokeswoman Meghan Burris said in an email. “In addition to several different criteria, OMB uses [benefit-cost ratio] to select projects as objectively as possible based on the amount of funding available in the President’s budget and Congressional appropriations.”
The gap between authorization and appropriation is even more noticeable in that it gives lawmakers a chance to determine where, geographically, federal money is spent — although they’re quick to note the practice is different from traditional earmarks.
Shuster, as the new Transportation and Infrastructure chairman, found a workaround to the earmarks ban in the 2014 WRDA. That law put the task of naming favored projects in the hands of the corps by requiring it to report annually on projects that met certain criteria and that Congress could then authorize. Because the projects originated with the corps, they wouldn’t be deemed congressionally directed spending.
The law passed with overwhelming majorities.
Lawmakers also found a method to be evenhanded. The 2014 WRDA established a deauthorization process for projects lingering on the books without funding. The 2016 WRDA deauthorized several projects, and the Congressional Budget Office found the bill would decrease the deficit.
Each law allows authorized projects that haven’t received federal funding in several years to be removed from the authorization list.
The move provided a win-win: the bill’s sponsors, including Shuster, could authorize billions of dollars in new spending while claiming it paid for itself through the deauthorization of old projects.
“It strengthens our infrastructure and is fiscally responsible at the same time,” Shuster said at the time.
Patient, but nervous
In Cedar Rapids, in the absence of federal funds, city leaders have worked with the state and county to raise money for the flood control system. A state law allowed the city to designate certain sales tax revenue to pay for flood protection.
Cedar Rapids has constructed roughly half a mile of levee out of a planned 7.5-mile system, and two out of 11 planned pump stations are operational.
The area’s psyche is still vulnerable to the 2008 flood and a flood threat that spooked residents in 2016. A flood could wash away the growth and prosperity, including a 35 percent gain in the tax base since 2008, said Mayor Bradley Hart.
“We had really hard rain yesterday and last night and this morning, and it already made me nervous,” Hart said in May. “It just scares me every time it rains hard for more than a couple hours. … We can’t take another blow like we had, certainly in ’08.”
Hart and others who represent the city were positive about their interactions with federal officials.
They’re taking what steps they can on their own. They’re patient and optimistic. They view the construction as a partnership between the city, state and federal governments. They’re doing their part and hoping the federal government contributes its share. Their efforts to help themselves fit with Trump’s infrastructure plan, which was to help local governments that take initiative.
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is hopeful as well.
“We have a different perspective now in the White House that values everyday Americans,” she said. “So I’m very optimistic.”
Cedar Rapids officials say they’ve been encouraged by meetings with the Trump administration and hope to have good news by the June 13 anniversary of the flood.
“We as a community have every intention of moving forward, but the lack of federal funds will make it very difficult for our community, for our taxpayers,” Pomeranz said. “And it’s going to keep us, also, in limbo without an answer to this question, which we think will affect our economy and jobs in our community. So we absolutely need this federal support.”
This story was first published in CQ Magazine on June 11 and has been updated to reflect the release of the Army Corps of Engineers fiscal 2018 work plan.
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