FRESH OFF the government shutdown fight, Congress is getting back to business. That’s not all good: The House is set to consider Wednesday a water bill that many taxpayer advocates say keeps a wasteful system without the fundamental reform it needs. They have a point.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act would adjust the way the federal government spends billions of dollars on Army Corps of Engineers projects. The bill, in other words, at least acknowledges that the way lawmakers have been sponsoring the construction of dams, levees and locks is irrational.
In the past, Congress would authorize specific projects, which would languish until lawmakers voted to fund them in a separate appropriations process, often years later. In the meantime, members could go back to their districts and boast that they had gotten a project authorized. But over time, Congress funded many fewer projects than it authorized, leading to a $60 billion backlog. Zombie water projects sit in a long line, many deservedly so, waiting for the right political moment for their allies to push some cash their way. Earmarks made the system even more corrupt, but the House has ended those.
The bill would set up a new system. Local sponsors of water development proposals would submit ideas to the Army Corps of Engineers, which would analyze them and hand Congress a list of potential projects. This would take some control out of lawmakers’ hands without empowering the executive branch.
But Taxpayers for Common Sense and a slew of fiscal conservative advocates pointed out in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday that the bill wouldn’t fix the problem, because the standards the corps will use to vet proposals aren’t high enough; projects would not be required to produce more than a negligible return on investment. As a result, lawmakers would continue to authorize projects of questionable value and build up the backlog of authorized proposals.
Also, the bill would limit environmental review and public comment on corps projects, even though activists insist that poor project planning and the cumbersome authorization and funding process are much more responsible than environmentalists for delaying worthy construction.
Instead of constraining environmental reviews, lawmakers should fix the big problem: the failure of the authorization system to sort out good projects from the merely mediocre, or even the plainly bad. One way to do that is to require all projects to meet high and specific tests before qualifying for authorization. If that doesn’t happen on the floor Wednesday, it should be on the table in conference with the Senate.