the film
Commentaries and editorials

Congress, Administration Intensify Scrutiny of Corps

by Jim Barnett
The Oregonian, April 7, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Squeezed by President Bush's wartime budget, Congress is pondering new rules intended to screen wasteful and environmentally harmful projects from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' $4 billion civil works budget.

Many on Capitol Hill approach the task grudgingly. The corps is a favorite conduit for pork-barrel spending, and members of Congress compete for money to dig shipping channels, replenish beaches and shore up flood zones in their districts.

The corps traditionally has catered to powerful members by proposing projects and documenting potential for economic benefits. But with federal budget deficits looming and the corps' credibility in doubt, some say Congress should apply greater discipline to the process.

"I do think momentum is going the right way," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who founded the Corps Reform Caucus last year. "There have been increasing questions and frustrations about the nature and quality of what has gone on."

A congressional panel plans to renew debate Wednesday as it begins drafting a biannual bill to authorize new projects. Blumenauer and others agree that for any meaningful reforms to pass Congress this year, they must be sugar-coated with the promise of future corps spending.

"If there is interest in (an authorization bill), we may be able to coax some stuff into it," he said.

Pressure for reform began mounting in 2000 when Don Sweeney, a corps economist in St. Louis, Mo., disclosed that superiors pressured him to inflate benefits of extending locks on the Upper Mississippi River.

But until the new Bush administration proposed cutting the corps' budget, Congress had little incentive to make substantive changes. Now, a shortage of money is creating pressure that the corps' perceived lack of credibility did not.

Independent reviews
Although Blumenauer does not expect a major overhaul this year, he has high hopes that Congress will take at least one big step by requiring the corps to submit project proposals to independent economists and scientists for review.

Independent review would allay concerns that the corps promotes projects to keep its work force busy and its budget growing, he said. It also would ensure that all major projects receive scrutiny, not just those in which community activists or newspapers take an interest.

Controversy over the corps' $188 million plan to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel is a case in point, Blumenauer said. The corps predicted that every $1 spent would return $2 in reduced shipping costs. But a recent series in The Oregonian, "Digging Deeper," calculated that the project would return no more than 88 cents while raising risks to wildlife and their habitat.

Officials at the corps and the Port of Portland disagreed with the newspaper's conclusion. But Blumenauer said the debate stirred by the series was "all to the good" and ultimately would serve the public interest.

"I'm hopeful that we can have this in a broader sense for the whole country -- not something that's hit-and-miss depending on local politics or local journalism, but a bigger picture of these critical water resources," Blumenauer said.

In an interview late last year, the corps' chief of planning, James F. Johnson, said the agency already was working with the National Academy of Sciences to set up a system of regular, independent reviews of corps projects.

"Whatever works, we're willing to live with," Johnson said.

Cost-benefit thinking
At the White House, reform is a matter of defending taxpayers' interest, officials said. The proposed 2003 budget would focus spending on projects that return the greatest benefits rather than spreading limited resources across the corps' $50 billion backlog of authorized projects.

"If you continue to add on project after project after project, then existing, proven projects that are essential to commerce and jobs suffer," said Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

OMB Director Mitch Daniels has led the charge within the administration. His efforts have invited comparisons with David Stockman, OMB director under President Reagan, who made corps reform a personal crusade.

Stockman forced a reluctant Congress to negotiate cost-saving reforms by withholding presidential approval for new projects. In 1986, Congress agreed to a compromise, and Reagan relented.

Bush and Daniels also have imposed a policy of "no new starts." But they appear satisfied to let pressure for reform build within Congress and to let legislators work out the details on their own.

"I think that is what the administration's goal, as I read it, has been," Blumenauer said.

Bush's approach to the corps has won rare plaudits from environmental activists. Many corps projects damage the environment, and budget cuts could force Congress to re-evaluate them, they said. The Columbia project, scheduled to begin in 2004, could be one of the biggest blocked by the no-new-starts policy.

Bush, Congress at odds "These are serious people who recognize we have to live with fewer resources and that we simply can't afford to build projects that are economically and environmentally questionable," said Scott Faber of Environmental Defense.

But so far, the proposed budget cuts have succeeded only in raising tensions between the legislative and executive branches. Members of Congress in both parties see the corps as an ally, and they have criticized Bush and Daniels for using what they view as excessive force.

Among the critics is Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking minority member of the House panel charged with drafting this year's authorization bill. When Bush dismissed the corps' chief, Mike Parker, for failing to defend the cuts, DeFazio vowed revenge.

"I'm sure the thugs at OMB are happily gnawing on Mike Parker's bones," said DeFazio, who wants to restore money for dredging small ports on the Oregon coast. "I think Congress may end up gnawing on their bones."

Blumenauer plans to kick off his reform effort this spring by introducing a House version of a bill offered in the Senate last month by Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Bob Smith, R-N.H. A likely partner is Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., an outspoken critic of the corps' planning process.

Reforms would apply only to new projects, so the Columbia channel dredging project, approved in 1999, would not come under review. But if the project should require reauthorization, some of the bill's provisions could hit close to home.

The Feingold-Smith bill, for example, would require a return of $1.50 for every $1 of taxpayer money invested. Although Port of Portland officials disagreed with The Oregonian's analysis of channel deepening, Executive Director Bill Wyatt acknowledged that the corps likely would revise its estimated return from $2 to $1.60 this spring, putting it just above the new threshold for approval.

Jim Barnett
Congress, Administration Intensify Scrutiny of Corps
The Oregonian, April 7, 2002

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation