Today, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, introduced the Army Corps of Engineers Reform Act of 2011 to reform the way water resources projects are funded by eliminating the need for wasteful earmarks, focusing on national priorities, and giving states flexibility to meet critical needs. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) is lead cosponsor of the bill.
The plan includes three major reforms: 1) Eliminate the Corps' more than 10-year backlog of over 1,000 earmarks by increasing transparency and establishing a Water Resources Commission to better prioritize water resource projects performed by the Corps in the United States, 2) Empower the Corps to undertake studies and construction projects based on national priority instead of politically-directed earmarks, 3) Reform the administration of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) to allow states to choose, within the proper parameters, where to use the Harbor Maintenance taxes collected at their own ports.
"The era of earmarks is over and Congress must pass urgently needed reforms to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent on national priorities or not spent at all," said Senator DeMint. "For too long, Congress has relied on a corrupting system that funded projects based on politics instead of merit. Politicians have tried to justify their existence with politically-driven handouts to low-priority projects in their states, but the time of using taxpayer-dollars as a favor factory must end. This bill answers the call of the American people who have demanded that we change the way Washington works. We can fund water resource projects of national priority, stop wasteful earmarks and give states the flexibility they need to address critical needs at our country's busiest ports."
"I appreciate Jim introducing this legislation and look forward to working with him to reform our current port funding system," said Senator Graham. "This legislation will bring about reform that will allow decisions to be made locally and fees collected will be used for the most local benefit. Senator DeMint and I will push this legislation in the Senate in an expeditious manner."
No matter their true priority, earmarks are considered "first in line" by various agencies even if more necessary projects are waiting to be completed. According to the Congressional Research Service: "In recent years, few new studies and new construction activities have been included in either the President's budget request or enacted appropriations legislation the Corps now has an estimated "backlog' of more than 1,000 authorized activities, with authorized funding estimated to exceed $80 billion." For example, The Washington Post reported in a September 2005 article titled "Money Flowed to Questionable Projects" that although the state of Louisiana led in Corps spending, more than a billion went to questionable projects while badly needed fixes to New Orleans levees went undone before Hurricane Katrina struck.
As the Post story explains: "Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana's representatives have kept bringing home the bacon. For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River -- now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project's congressional godfather -- for barge traffic that is less than forecast."
Last month the Taxpayers for Commonsense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, raised alarm about waste at the Corps, writing, "In many cases, however, the projects the Corps pursues are undertaken not because they serve the national interest, but because of a lawmaker's political power. Many Corps projects are economically wasteful Over the last several years, Corps projects have been criticized by the National Academy of Science, Government Accountability Office (GAO), and even the U.S. Army Inspector General. While there are many questionable Corps projects, some deserve special attention because they are solely the product of political calculations in Congress, and are especially wasteful of taxpayer dollars."
The national Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund collects over a billion dollars each year but some of it is used for projects that have no impact on commerce. The Congressional Research Service has pointed out that, "Corps data indicate that a significant portion of annual HMTF disbursements are directed towards harbors which handle little or no cargo Yaquina Bay and Harbor in Oregon ... has received over $25 million in HMTF revenues over the last decade. No cargo has been shipped through this harbor in years," and, "In 1998, the [Humboldt Harbor in California] embarked on a deepening project from 40 to 48 feet but ship traffic has declined since then. About one ocean-going ship calls at this port per month."
How the Army Corps Act of 2011 works:
* Requires Corps to publish annually in the Federal Register and online a comprehensive list of authorized projects under their jurisdiction. For each project, the date of authorization and whether or not the project received any funding within 5 years of its authorization date should be included. This list should also be provided to the Committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate.
* Additionally, within 90 days of enactment, Corps is required to publish in the Federal Register and provide to the Committees of jurisdiction a consolidated list of all studies and projects that have been de-authorized to date, including the year and amount of each.
* Establishes a Commission of 11 non-federal, unpaid Members. The Commission is charged with developing recommendations for a process of regularized prioritization assessments for Corps projects based on project prioritization criteria set forth in the bill. The Commission would also categorize currently authorized Corps projects included in the published list mentioned above by project type and prioritize them in a Tier system.
* Sets up an alternative system for the disbursement of harbor maintenance taxes collected at our nation's ports. States could choose to opt-in to a new Harbor Maintenance Block Grant Program.
* For states that opt-in, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials will continue to collect HMTF taxes at and then distribute the funds collected directly to the State in the form of a block grant. States would receive funds in proportion to the HMTF collections in their states.
* Each individual state will then be able to use the funds as they see fit for their port(s), i.e. for dredging, studies, new construction projects. All environmental requirements will remain in place for any project that is undertaken by the state at their port facilities.
* States that choose not to opt-in to the reformed HMTF block grant program would continue to receive a portion of the HMTF taxes collected in states that choose not to opt-in to the new program.