GOP attempts to skirt earmarks for water projects running aground

By Annie Snider | 04/24/2015 07:23 AM EDT

One of congressional Republicans’ major attempts to regain a say over water resources projects while maintaining their self-imposed earmark ban may have hit a brick wall.

One of congressional Republicans’ major attempts to regain a say over water resources projects while maintaining their self-imposed earmark ban may have hit a brick wall.

Under the ban, lawmakers haven’t been able to name an individual project in legislation authorizing or funding lock, dam, levee and ports projects unless that project has already been proposed to Congress by the White House.

In practice, that has left it up to the administration to decide whether a flooding problem in California merits study to determine if there’s a national interest in fixing it, or whether a Texas port authority’s request to make a change to a harbor deepening project already underway should be accepted (Greenwire, Feb. 20).


When House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) sold his caucus on passing major water resources legislation last year, this tying of lawmakers’ hands was one of the main things he vowed to change.

Shuster’s solution: Have the Army Corps of Engineers collect project ideas from communities around the country and, after a basic vetting process, forward them to Congress in an annual report. Lawmakers could then name any project that appeared in that report in legislation without running afoul of the earmark ban.

But now, with the so-called WRRDA bill signed into law, the corps’ first stab at the process has left Republican lawmakers deeply disappointed.

"I think you would probably agree that the first one you did was a little incomplete or inconclusive," Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), chairman of the T&I subpanel with jurisdiction over the corps, told the agency’s top official during a budget hearing this week.

The annual report, sent to Congress in February, included just 19 of the 114 projects that local entities submitted to the corps. The remainder ended up in an appendix with brief explanations for why they weren’t included. Most, the corps said, were proposals that were already covered by an existing authority.

"I just want to make clear to the administration what I think Congress’ intent was: that as long as the criteria is met — it’s under federal jurisdiction — that these things should be coming to us to make a determination," Gibbs told Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy. "So we’ve had a little heartburn, I guess I would say."

Darcy said that the administration had also applied guidance from an executive order pertaining to submissions to Congress.

Gibbs said that his concern was more than just semantic. Without projects being listed in the report itself, Congress likely will not be able to name them in legislation, he explained.

"If something’s in the appendix, we might not be able to address it when we hopefully do [water resources development legislation] next year," Gibbs said.

Local entities that partner with the corps on projects have also expressed worries about the corps’ approach to the WRRDA reporting requirement.

Amy Larson, president of the National Waterways Conference, said that even project proposals that check all of the official boxes sometimes get held up by the administration.

"One of the objectives of this is to look at what are those things that are being held up within the administration because they don’t comport with administration priorities? So let’s shake the tree and get all those things out," said Larson, whose group wrote a letter to Darcy laying out its concerns.

"Before the earmark moratorium, nonfederal sponsors had the opportunity to seek congressional assistance in moving forward with their projects," Larson said. "This provision seeks to regain that oversight and authority in a more transparent way."

To be sure, all sides agree that the tug of war between Congress and the White House is not new and exists regardless of who is president.

"This is a perennial issue between this and previous administrations and this and previous Congresses in that the administration is continuously trying to institute a means of prioritization, where the corps, instead of being so far afield with hundreds of thousands of projects, is focusing on a smaller number of projects with a greater return on investment or that are serving true national needs," said Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense.

But as the corps attempts to make progress through its massive backlog of projects — with the help of a deauthorization provision in last year’s WRRDA bill — stakeholders say the battle is on for who decides what the corps does next.

"What you’re watching is an evisceration of the corps’ planning program," said Howard Marlowe, a longtime lobbyist for communities seeking corps projects. "We’ve stunted the corps’ ability to meet those needs because we’re not really hearing about them anymore in a way that we can respond. It’s all filtered, and all they’re thinking about is what the assistant secretary and [the White House Office of Management and Budget] is thinking about."

Click here for more information on the corps’ first annual report on proposals for authorization.