Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
As budget watchdogs, we know that some federal agencies are more wasteful than others in almost every sense. For nearly two centuries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been one of those agencies that seems to excel at wasting taxpayer money. (Someone on my staff has an 1836 House Ways and Means Committee report that documents 25 Corps projects that were over budget and demands, "actual reform, in the further prosecution of public works." Here at Taxpayers for Common Sense we are nerds—and proud of it.)
The Corps, housed within the Department of Defense, is responsible for construction and maintenance of civil works projects across the country. Among other things, the Civil Works division of the Corps is responsible for flood and storm damage reduction (think: levees along rivers, seawalls along the Atlantic coast), navigation projects (port dredging and lock and dam systems on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers) and environmental restoration (re-plumbing the Everglades—what a great gig, the Corps projects were largely responsible for degrading it, now they get paid to restore it). These are important areas of responsibility and ones that even in this highly polarized time, many Republicans and Democrats agree require some role for the federal government. So it is particularly troubling that the Corps has such a great track record for wasting money.
There are lots of examples of Army Corps waste. First, let's talk about so-called coastal storm damage reduction projects, namely the pumping of sand along the nation's shorelines. The euphemistically named "beach nourishment" projects are a band-aid approach to providing communities protection from hurricanes and storm surge as well as naturally occurring erosion. By design, "beach nourishment" must be done over and over—the work on many of these projects extends as long as 50 years—since the sands will keep eroding over time no matter how many times we "replenish" the beaches. And who benefits from these programs? Mostly wealthy property owners with beachfront property. Despite picking up two-thirds of the tab, the federal interest in beach nourishment projects is low and most of the costs should be left to local and state governments and private property owners.
And then there are all those levees and other flood control projects the Corps constructs. Too often the projects that get priority from the Corps just happen to have the right political champions rather than logic, or economics, on their side. Take for example the New Madrid Levee project in southeast Missouri. This is a $150 million levee and pumping project, paid for almost exclusively by the federal government, designed to protect a handful of large farming operations from seasonal flooding. The problem: this farmland is in a floodway—a naturally occurring old channel of the Mississippi River, which the Corps intentionally floods to protect the thousands of residents of Cairo, Illinois and other upstream communities from flooding. We just flooded this land with millions of gallons of water in 2011.
But for all of the many failings of the Army Corps of Engineers, Congress has not helped the matter. Before the earmark moratorium was put in place in 2010, most of the Army Corps of Engineers budget was set by earmarks, encouraging the agency to pursue projects that could catch the eye of powerful legislators but weren't necessarily in the national interest. More recently, the Corps has been given significant increases in funding with almost no strings attached, including nearly $3.5 billion in the emergency spending bill passed after Super Storm Sandy. In fact, the Congressional Research Service found that a third of the total Corps funding over the last 10 years (roughly $75 billion) has come in the form of emergency appropriations.
The solution to the problem of waste at the Corps is up to Congress—by including a clear mandate for prioritization in the authorizing legislation and then by providing consistent oversight—Congress could take important steps towards reforming this important agency. Unfortunately, the Water Resources and Development bill recently approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee goes in the opposite direction. The president can also insist on performance, transparency, and accountability.
Over the years, we've learned that there is really no short cut to rooting out waste and holding the government to a high standard. We need Congress and the president to do the hard work of making important agencies work for all Americans.