Why Water Projects Should Not be Included In The Earmark Moratorium

Past designation of funds by the Congress for some dubious projects like the “bridge to nowhere” became a highly charged political issue during the 2010 election. As a result, Republicans in the House and Senate have now established a ban on earmarking funds for specific projects. Facing the threat of a Presidential veto, the Democrat leadership in the Senate has also announced it will not include any earmarks in appropriations bills during the 112th Congress. The House and Senate will now need to distinguish those measures that fall under the “earmark” definition from those funding decisions required for the Congress to dutifully discharge its constitutional powers by enacting federal appropriations, including establishing spending priorities.

Not to impugn the merits of the Congress designating funds to museums, universities, and for other local needs, but these projects are unlike appropriations to individual water resources projects that have been previously reviewed and authorized by enabling Acts of Congress.

Unlike most other federal programs, the Congress exercises close oversight over water resource projects. Administrations have historically requested funding for the Corps of Engineers on an individual project basis. After congressional hearings with agency officials and input from project stakeholders, including their congressional representatives, the Congress has provided annual appropriations to the Corps on this same basis. Some Corps projects may receive increases above that requested by the President. Other projects may be funded at the President’s request or at a reduced amount by the Congress due to circumstances that may have occurred after the Administration’s budget request was prepared. All of these congressional decisions regarding project spending are accomplished within the total budget allocation given to the Appropriations Subcommittee and consequently do not result in a net increase in federal spending.

A water resource project is not eligible for federal funding unless it has been reviewed and authorized by the Congress in prior legislation. Moreover, these projects are subjected to rigorous economic and environmental analyses and to an extensive coordination and review process by federal, state, and local interests before the Congress will authorize them as a candidate for funding. Most projects also require financial contributions by non-federal beneficiaries to pay a share of the costs of these infrastructure needs.  For example, a special fuel tax levied on commercial users pays one-half of the costs for federally authorized waterway improvements with the remainder coming from congressional appropriations. No other federal program is subjected to such scrutiny and public involvement.

The Congress should continue its traditional appropriations process for water resources projects, which are so critical to the nation’s economic well-being, job retention and growth, and quality of life. The Congress should also permit stakeholders and their congressional representatives to participate in this process as it has historically done.

A far- reaching congressional ban on so-called earmarks will not preclude political decisions on the ultimate use of discretionary spending. Instead, the Congress would allow those spending choices to be made solely by the Executive Branch. For example, the Congress appropriated $600 million to USDOT in FY 2010 to fund its capital grant program (TIGER II) for transportation improvements. These funds were provided with little congressional direction or input on project selection. All 50 states submitted grant applications that totaled $19 billion, more than 30 times that available for funding.

Last fall, USDOT selected 42 capital projects totaling nearly $575 million, which were located in 20 states. Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi did not receive any funding. Tennessee did receive one $13M grant for Cates Landing, which is a new port on the Mississippi River. It’s likely not coincidental that nearly 90 percent of these grant funds went to projects located in or benefiting congressional districts held by Democrats.  However, this kind of political favoritism by the Administration escaped the watchful eye of the media and the general public.

More such decisions can be expected in the future if the Congress shrinks from its constitutional duties to provide greater oversight and direction on the use of federal spending, regardless of the earmark moratorium. To do otherwise and not ensure a more appropriate and equitable allocation of federal appropriations for domestic needs, such as water resources projects, would be unconscionable and likely subject the Congress to further public criticism.

February 2011