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Water Resources Development Act

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I thank you for having this important debate regarding our Nation's aging infrastructure and for allowing this body to discuss the merits of Corps of Engineers reform.

As you know, I supported allowing this bill to come to the Senate floor for consideration. Congress has not passed a water resources authorization bill since 2000, and particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this debate is long overdue. While many attempted to derail consideration of this debate, I did not because I believed that we must have this discussion in the open.

That being said, I have deep concerns regarding the legislation that is before us today. Specifically, I am concerned that we are missing a historic opportunity to incorporate the many lessons learned since the last WRDA bill passed in 2000. Consider the following developments that highlight the critical need for reform of the Corps of Engineers:

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in March 2006 that ``the cost benefit analyses performed by the Corps to support decisions on Civil Works projects . . . were generally inadequate to provide a reasonable basis for deciding whether to proceed with the project . . .'' GAO-06-529T--Corps of Engineers: Observations on Planning and Project Management Processes for the Civil Works Program (March 15, 2006)

In remarking on the fact that the Corps reprogrammed over $2.1 billion through 7,000 reprogramming actions in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, the GAO noted that the Corps' practice was often ``not necessary'' and is ``reflect[ive] of poor planning and an absence of Corps-wide priorities for its Civil Works priorities.'' GAO-06-529T--Corps of Engineers: Observations on Planning and Project Management Processes for the Civil Works Program (March 15, 2006)

In a report to Congress in 2003 regarding the Sacramento flood protection project, the GAO found that the Corps used ``an inappropriate methodology to calculate the value of protected properties'' and failed to properly report expected cost increases. Consider the projected costs for the three primary Sacramento projects: the Common Features Project increased from $57 million in 1996 to $370 million in 2002; the American Features project increased from $44 million in 1996 to $143 million in 2002; and the Natomis Basin component has ballooned from an early estimated cost of $13 million, to $212 million in 2002. GAO-04-30--Corps of Engineers: Improved Analysis of Costs & Benefits Needed for the Sacramento Flood Control Project.

Thanks to a Corps whistleblower and a subsequent investigation by the Army inspector general, we know that the Corps: ``manipulated the economic analyses of the feasibility study being conducted on the Upper Mississippi lock expansion project in order to steer the study to a specific outcome.'' Furthermore, the investigation revealed that a Corps official knowingly directed that ``mathematically flawed'' data be used to justify the project. High-ranking Corps officials also were criticized for giving ``preferential treatment to the barge industry . . .'' by allowing industry representatives to become direct participants in the economic analysis.'' U.S. Office of Special Counsel: Statement of Elaine Kaplan. Special Counsel, U.S. Office of Special Counsel (December 2000).

I could add several more examples, including the many lessons we have learned in the wake of Katrina, but my point is clear: the processes used for project justification, for long-term planning, for cost containment, and for project accountability are fundamentally flawed and do not serve the best interests of American taxpayers. For too long, we have allowed project costs to soar, routinely accepted inaccurate studies to justify large projects, and rarely, if ever, asked the tough questions of Corps officials.

Congress plays a central role in the oversight of all Federal agencies, and with respect to the Corps, we have failed taxpayers miserably. Why? Perhaps a better question would be to ask who benefits most from lax congressional oversight. I would argue that Members themselves are the real winners. We get the projects we want, regardless of the cost or the overall impact on critical national infrastructure, and the Corps is allowed to operate as it pleases. This environment--with every incentive for construction and little or no incentive for accountability--is a recipe for disasters of all sorts.

The only way to fix this problem in the long term is to bring fiscal transparency and oversight to this process.

First and foremost, we have to develop our ability to prioritize authorized Corps projects. The Corps currently faces a $58 billion dollar project backlog that will take many decades to resolve, and this bill will add over $10 billion more to that backlog. Many worthwhile projects, already debated and authorized by previous Congresses, languish in the annual competition for appropriations. Taking their place in line are politically popular projects that rarely address vital national infrastructure needs. Again, we are failing taxpayers.

I am pleased to see the amendment offered by my colleagues, Senators Feingold and McCain, that will squarely address this lack of prioritization. The tools that will be provided by this amendment will strengthen the ability of Members of Congress to analyze the hundreds of authorized Corps projects and determine which are in the best interests of our Nation. Congress maintains its discretion to fund whichever projects it deems most appropriate, but we will do so with an abundance of new data that will highlight critical national infrastructural needs. Funds are increasingly limited, and we have a responsibility to prioritize projects based on their impact.

Second, in our efforts to improve this important process, Congress must consider ways to bring greater oversight to the Corps. The many instances of wrongdoing in the Corps project justification process make clear that we must do better. With billions of dollars at stake and often thousands of lives hanging in the balance, we simply cannot allow for manipulation and undue influence in the justification study process.

Again, I am pleased to see the efforts of Senators McCain and Feingold in addressing this void. The Corps has proven itself incapable of mending these problems on its own, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the project justification process. It is imperative that outside experts, with no stake in large-scale construction proposals, be allowed to review these types of Corps studies. While I may have designed the amendment in a slightly different manner, I look forward to supporting the McCain-Feingold approach that will allow for a truly independent and time-sensitive review by a panel of experts. At the end of the day, Congress still makes the final decision on which projects to fund, and in no way will this amendment impact our constitutional obligations or slow project construction. We can still fund wasteful and inefficient spending if we so desire. If we pass this amendment, at least we will ensure that the studies we cite are accurate. We owe that to the American public.

I am grateful to my colleagues for the countless hours they have spent in putting this bill together. I know the road that led to this debate today was not an easy one, and it has been a long and difficult journey. As we embark on this debate and in our legitimate desire to pass this legislation, however, we must not overlook the critical need for Corps reform. The many lessons we have learned since WRDA 2000 are as numerous as they are pressing. The Corps of Engineers is staffed by many dedicated and hard-working Americans, many of whom are in my State. The agency itself, however, is ailing and demands our attention. If the Corps is to continue to meet the mandate it has been given and serve the needs of the American taxpayer, we must not move forward without the incorporation of new oversight and transparency.

America's waterways and flood control projects have played an important role in protecting our communities and in spurring agricultural and industrial commerce. Unless we can reform the Corps, though, their impact will increasingly diminish. As it stands today, the Corps is not accountable to Congress, and ultimately, it is not accountable to the American taxpayer. We have a historic opportunity to change this environment, and we must seize it.

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