Corps’ Funding is Only One Part of a More Serious Problem
Can you drive on a flat tire?
The President’s proposal for the Corps budget is completely inadequate and must be increased substantially by Congress. It is equally important to say that, as hard as this Committee has worked to increase the Corps’ budget over the last few years, the funding level the civil works program was what Corps officials said it needed 10 years ago. People often refer to the multi-billion backlog of Corps projects. To the extent there is a backlog, it is one caused by a failure on the part of Congress and the American people to prioritize spending on water resources. Waterways and floods captured the attention of Congress in the mid-1800’s through the 1940’s, with significant policies and funding that enabled this nation’s economy to expand and thrive while also installing measures to deal with nature’s fury. The need for congressional attention is even greater today than it was then because we have more people, more infrastructure, and more goods and services at risk than ever before.
On the coast, every administration from President Clinton through the current administration has tried to stifle the Corps’ rather meagre initiatives. Out of a $6 billion budget, less than $150 million is spent on average on pre-disaster coastal storm risk reduction and ecosystem restoration projects. Given the nation’s thousands of miles of coastline and the increasing risks from storms and rising sea levels, that level of expenditure is too pitiful to be called inadequate. Half of our population and more than half of our Gross Domestic Product is based in that narrow zone within 50 miles of the coast. We invest little in its resilience to rising seas and raging storms. Instead, we treat its post-storm repair as a cost of doing business. Last year, the Corps’ regular budget was tripled by a separate supplemental disaster spending bill. Studies have shown that spending money on the various types of coastal storm risk reduction measures prior to storms reduces not only the level of Corps funds spent post-disaster, but also saves on flood insurance payouts, small business and agricultural relief payouts, and Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief.
The Corps’ investigations budget is totally inadequate to meet the nation’s coastal needs, including updating beach nourishment projects to meet current scientific standards or implementing the ecosystem nourishment and protection projects that will help communities build resilience using living shorelines and other newer techniques. Once authorized and constructed, coastal projects need to be adaptively managed even if that means adaptive management modifications to reduce unanticipated environmental impacts or increase their effectiveness. The current system makes that kind of flexibility almost impossible to achieve. The construction budget for coastal storm damage reduction amounts to the cost of a commercial passenger airplane – and not a big one. It is one-fourth of what the American Shore & Beach Preservation Associated estimated it should have been before the realities of Katrina and sea level rise.
It is easy for Members of Congress to declare victory because they got a provision included in the latest WRDA or a project in their State or District was funded. It is much harder to look at the reality of the needs not being met due to inadequate funding and the archaic process Congress has created for dealing with the nation’s water resources needs. The whole process of project-by-project authorization and funding was good for the 19th century but it is increasing costs, risks and delays in the 21st century. We have absolutely no coherent coastal risk reduction program in the United States. While no Federal agency should dictate such a policy to the states, there is much that both the legislative and executive branches can do to help states and groups of states implement plans that are based on sound science and good engineering practices.
The issue of earmarks must also be addressed. When it gave away its earmarking authority, Congress shot itself in the foot and he Corps in a more vital part of its corporate body. The President earmarks the Corps budget, project-by project, study-by-study, and program-by-program. In forbidding itself from earmarking, Congress has given up its ability to counter with its own earmarks. That has left control of the Corps of Engineers in the hands of a small group of mid-level bureaucrats who do far more than watch where money is spent. They approve the agency’s rules and its communications to Congress and the public, yet they never appear before this Committee or anyone else in Congress because they are a White House office. It is a hard pill to swallow, but this small group of career bureaucrats is running every part of the ship from stem to stern. The Corps of Engineers you see today is not the Corps I saw 10 years ago before Congress gave away its funding powers. Moreover, there is not one decision OMB makes that has an iota of transparency to it, nor are their decisions based on a rationale other than making sure that the Corps of Engineers becomes solely a maintenance agency for its existing set of projects.
It is impossible to “airdrop” a study or construction project into the Corps’ budget. The civil works process has more than two-dozen steps from study start to construction. Each study must be authorized by Congress and separately funded by Congress. Each study has milestones from pre-study to end-of-study that require public notification. No Member of Congress can decree by any means of legislative finesse or trickery that a study be started or a project be built. Congress must either resume its constitutional responsibility to control what the Corps of Engineers does or else deny that power to the President.
I have a client whose Corps study lasted more than 15 years, who received a favorable Chief’s Report and was authorized by Congress to be constructed. Nevertheless, OMB will not fund the Preconstruction, Engineering & Design phase. They have the full non-Federal share in hand, but OMB prohibits them from even advancing a single dollar of that money to begin this critical phase. A former client is being prevented by OMB from completing the last part of the PED phase. Without a design, these projects can’t be constructed with or without Federal dollars, rendering moot the millions of Federal, State and local dollars that have already gone into the study.
These communities are not alone in suffering the wrath of these mid-level folks at OMB. An initiative started by all the eight Great Lakes states with the help of the Corps and other Federal agencies could not get a single dollar in the FY19 budget despite the fact that the governors of all eight states supported it, the international commission supported it, and it was supported by Corps Headquarters and the Assistant Secretary’s office. Meanwhile, Congress poured millions of dollars into a South Atlantic Coastal Study that has not one single cost-share partner. Congress was created by the Founders as an equal branch of government with ultimate power over spending. Take back the power of the peoples’ branch of government by restoring earmarks for the Corps budget and you will also breathe new life into an agency being strangled by OMB.