Dear Director Mulvaney,
Congratulations on your appointment as Director of the White House Office of Budget and Management. You have been given a unique opportunity to have a voice in our nation’s fiscal management and steer our country’s financial priorities in a positive direction.
As you begin your tenure at the helm of OMB you will see the vast power and opportunity of your position and your agency. At the same time, you will begin to see its shortcomings – the bottlenecks in the processes, the inefficiencies in decision-making, which have obstructed sincere efforts for positive change for several administrations. I have been involved as an advocate for water resources for nearly 30 years, with extensive experience dealing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and OMB. My work has given me the opportunity to see the bigger picture about this unique government agency that has fallen victim to the short-sightedness and micro-management of accountants and politicians who don’t understand how to meet the water resource needs of 21st America.
The problem with the Office of Management and Budget is the nitpicking short-sightedness of career middle management who, in cooperation with former OMB employees who have been placed on the staff of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, have struck fear into Corps personnel. It was not hard 20 years ago for the Corps to show the can-do attitude that built water transportation, flood protection, and the other water resources our nation needs.
Unfortunately, I see too little of that today due to the chokehold that OMB’s middle management has over the agency. I have witnessed the exercise of their almost unfettered power that has oftentimes been at odds with the agenda of presidents from Clinton to Obama and all in between. Other OMB directors and their upper level management appointees have not made a dent in a middle management mindset that uses its micro-management of every Corps dollar, project, and upper Corps management decision to stifle updated approaches to meeting water resource needs.
There is another set of issues that must be tackled by Corps leaders who are given the freedom and direction to work with taxpayers to revamp a 19th century system of doing business to meet 21st century needs. For example, every Corps study and project starts with a request from a Mayor or a Governor. The study must be authorized by Congress. If it meets the “national interest” standards of law and Corps guidance, it then gets authorized and possibly funded for implementation. That may have succeeded for the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, but it is a system that no longer works. Both science and common sense say that water resource needs (inland or coastal) must be treated as part of a region. It’s known as a “systems approach.” What happens upstream or upcoast has an impact elsewhere and vice versa. Managing each project individually costs taxpayers more money than would managing the projects as a regional system.
I have left funding to last even though the Corps’ annual budget of $6 billion is paltry compared to the enormity of the nation’s water resource needs. Increases in the Corps’ budget can be most effective if they are tied to thoughtful investments in a systems approach, not one that is hampered by the Corps’ artificial business lines or colors of money. Sound engineering and science coupled with good fiscal management and a significantly increased role for State and regional collaborations – including private sector stakeholders – should underlie the water resource policy and funding initiatives of the new Administration.
Water is America’s silent infrastructure. I strongly believe the Army Corps of Engineers has a crucial role in meeting the water resource needs of the nation. My hope is that you keep these points in mind as you lead an agency that can revitalize our country and help us meet the serious economic as well as life and safety challenges of this century.