The headlines for June 21, 2018 weren’t much different from most over the past 18 months. Immigration dominated the headlines, with the major story being the presidential decision to end the forced separation of immigrants crossing into the U.S. It was also the day the Trump administration announced its plan for a major reorganization of parts of the Federal government. Most observers called in “a long-short” at best or simply “Dead on Arrival”. Both are accurate since Congress has the final decision about dismembering agencies, and there’s no evidence that it was consulted prior to the plan’s release.
Nevertheless, at least one agency that would be decimated by the plan, the Army Corps of Engineers, has sprung into action. No, it’s not resisting; it’s planning how to make the change. According several sources, senior Corps leadership is mobilizing a team “to commence planning for the reorganization.” Given the fact that the Corps was recently allocated almost three times its normal budget to repair water resources damaged by last year’s storms, it’s going to have a hard time focusing on spending that money wisely while also wondering whether the agency will even exist.
The Administration’s reorganization plan had its origins in a March Executive Order. Any major reorganization requires the approval of Congress. For the Corps, the scheme would distribute the non-defense missions of the Corps to the Interior and Transportation departments. For the Corps, the reorganization plan bears all the fingerprints of the "friendly" folks at the White House Office of Management and Budget who have wanted to disembowel the Corps for three decades. Their gripe: the Corps was too cozy with Congress and not responsive enough to the administration. It wasn’t until the Carter administration that there was an executive branch official in charge of the Corps. Based on our inside information, the Corps has learned how to be a good soldier and will figure out how “to prepare for the transfer of functions and responsibilities.”
The Corps’ missions all relate to water resources: navigation and flood control make up the bulk of them. The navigation mission would go to Transportation based on the claim that “DOT is the primary Federal agency responsible for all modes of transportation except for maritime issues.” At first glance, this has some solid logic behind it. Let’s put water transportation into the same department that manages aviation, highways and railroads. If anyone has dreams of a cohesive national transportation plan resulting from this, look at the lack of coordination DOT has managed with the modes of transport it already controls. Navigation is currently over 40 percent of the Corps’ budget, but it would become a less than three percent of DOT’s, so there’s that to consider, as well.
Along the coast, ports and navigation channels are the key to the Nation’s commercial strength, since almost all imports and exports move by water. Under the Administration’s plan, whatever is left of the Corps' coastal storm damage reduction and environmental protection functions would go to the Interior Department. Notice that the meaning of the word “interior” has no relationship to the word “coastal.” So instead of regionalizing our coastal water resources efforts by trying to break down the barriers (called “business lines”) within the Corps, we would need to have the new, smaller parts of Interior and DOT try to work together just to take sand from DOT’s navigation channels to nourish Interior’s newly-acquired coastal interests. Speaking of Interior, the reorganization would pose an interesting challenge to that agency’s Bureau of Reclamation whose water resources responsibilities are limited to the 17 western states and $1 billion. That ought to make for a blood-spattered bureaucratic showdown at the OK Corral.
I could go on with other arguments against this part of the reorganization plan, but the most important one is that it dismembers the proverbial baby in the name of tossing out bathwater that needs refreshing. Earlier I stated that OMB’s animus for the Corps was based on the latter’s strong relationships with Congress. Surprise folks! That relationship has deteriorated in the 35-plus years I’ve been around. The only time anyone from the Corps Headquarters sets foot on Capitol Hill is in response a summons to testify on matters of budget that shed little light on water resources policy or programs.
It may be time to pull the Corps out from under Army control so its civilian missions can thrive. For starters, though, the Corps is badly in need of a change in management style and internal organization that meshes with both the water infrastructure demands of the 21st Century and its fiscal constraints. The day is just around the corner when the Corps will be needed not to build new ports and dams, but to sell its engineering and planning skills to the public and private sectors alike.
That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.