Water infrastructure bill could drain taxpayer dollars with little oversight

It could end up being taxpayer money going down the drain.

The Senate is debating a bill that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a wide range of water projects with little Congressional oversight, in effect giving the Corps carte blanche to spend on projects of its own choosing.  All at a cost of $12.5 billion over the next ten years.

The bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, was sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).  Its purpose is “to provide for the conservation and development of water and related resources, to authorize the Secretary of the Army to construct various projects for improvements to rivers and harbors of the United States, and for other purposes.”

But the text of the proposed legislation goes beyond giving money to the Corps of Engineers to complete projects.  It also gives authority to the Corps to decide which projects are worthwhile, a power long held by Congress.

Sec. 1002 of the bill states that the only requirements to fund a project are that 1) the Corps has completed an evaluation of the potential project and 2) a report has been filled notifying Congress.  That leaves a lot of room for the Corps to decide which projects are worthwhile and how much they get — a far cry from the days when Congress specified the projects and how much was to be spent on each.

And the bill would give the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works broad powers to fund projects beyond their initial budget, so long as Congress is notified. No congressional approval required.

“The Secretary may modify the authorized project cost…by submitting the required certification and additional information to Congress,” the bill reads.

The amount of money involved is not small.  A report by the Congressional Budget Office, which does nonpartisan economic research for lawmakers, estimated the cost of the bill could be as high as $12.5 billion over the next ten years.

That proposal to spend so many dollars with so little oversight and no real protection against cost overruns earns Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. David Vitter this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of fiscal waste and mismanagement in government.

Supporters of the bill argue it will help improve the infrastructure of the country by allowing the Corps greater flexibility to complete projects faster.  Not only would improvements be made to prepare localities to survive devastating storms such as Hurricane Katrina and super storm Sandy, but a number of environmental projects would be undertaken to create flood control plans, reduce erosion and restore the ecosystem.

Neither Boxer’s office nor Vitter’s returned numerous calls seeking comment.  Boxer defended the bill during a March hearing of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee.

“Senator Vitter and I have worked with other members of the EPW committee to develop this bipartisan legislation, which is estimated to create up to 500,000 new jobs,” she said.  “This is a landmark day because Congress hasn’t passed a WRDA bill in five years, and the nation’s water resource infrastructure just cannot wait.”

Vitter, meanwhile, said the legislation will help complete needed projects quicker.

“Our bill will implement real and necessary reforms to the Corps of Engineers to decrease project delivery time so that folks will be better protected from flooding and other projects can help jumpstart increased commerce,” he said.

The big price tag and lack of oversight have attracted the attention of fiscal watchdogs.

“Congress is just rubber stamping what the Corps decides to do,” said Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.  “We need to find a way to prioritize our projects and figure out which projects are actually in the nation interest.”

Sewell said the idea behind the bill was to avoid earmarks, which are viewed as wasteful and often politically motivated.  Instead of lawmakers designating money to fund specific projects (the very definition of earmarks), they would instead remove themselves from the process and trust the Corps to make the decisions.

But it is Congress’ responsibility, as representatives of the people, to decide which infrastructure projects are worthwhile and which aren’t, he said.

“I don’t think we should just give up on making decisions with our federal tax dollars,” Sewell said.  Congress is saying “since we can’t make any decisions, we’re going to let other people make decisions.”

And in an era of budget tightening, “Congress is suppose to be reining in the number of projects,” not expanding them, he added.

Sewell’s group joined eight other think tanks and watchdogs in sending a letter to Capitol Hill warning about the dangers of the bill.

“The bill is full of a myriad of provisions that would serve to undercut long-standing cost sharing rules; placing greater burdens on federal taxpayers at a time of severe budgetary pressures,” the letter said.

Watchdogs focused on provisions in the bill that they believe give the Corps too much room to spend the money however it chooses.

“The bill appears to simply approve whatever the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends,” the letter they sent to Capitol Hill said, adding that projects should instead “meet certain enhanced cost-benefit criteria,” prioritize which projects are most important and limit the number of projects the backlogged engineering group has to deal with.

The letter was drafted by a coalition concerned the proposal will circumvent many taxpayer safeguards.  The group includes Taxpayers for Common Sense, Citizens Against Government Waste, National Taxpayers Union, Freedom Works, Club for Growth, R Street, Americans for Prosperity, Taxpayers Protection Alliance and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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