The Budget Dance

WJ Editorial
The Waterways Journal
21 February 2011

Every year. the president proposes a bare-bones budget for the Corps of Engineers Civil Works program, seeking to save money by cutting funding for construction, operations and maintenance. and dredging. Every year, Congress responds by adding money back into the Corps budget, so the final appropriated amount, while never enough to accomplish what is really needed on the waterways is enough to allow the Corps to scrape by.

The budget dance has been going on for as long as we can re-member. Each party in the well-scripted choreography responds to its own influences. The president listens to the Office of Management and Budget, which, without fail, seeks to balance the budget by slashing spending. Congress. on the other hand. because its members more closely represent their local constituencies. is better able to see first-hand the positive effects of a healthy water transportation system, and the job-killing results if the system is not maintained adequately.

Performing his side of the dance to perfection last week. President Obama submitted a proposed budget calling for $4.631 billion for the Civil Works program. down from the administrations own request of $4.9 billion a year ago. and well below currently appropriated levels. The proposal has OMB's cost-slashing finger-prints all over it. and is bundled in language calling for increased revenues paid by commercial navigation users. Readers will re-call that navigation users negotiated with the Corps for two gars for a reasonable capital improvement plan that would both in-crease industry contributions and streamline the Corps construction practices. Apparently the compromise they reached wasn't good enough for OMB, which rejected the deal late in 2010.

As the old saying goes. it takes two to tango, and now it's Congress' turn to step forward and join the dance, restoring much-needed funding to the Corps budget.

However. as Pittsburgh Port Director James McCarville pointed out, the new Congress gives us reason for concern that this years dance may not be so artful.

"The problem is that Congress is proving into uncharted territory, and we don't know how Congress is going to operate. how
they're going to deal with projects like these. Will they be construed to be earmarks?" he told the WJ's Carlo Salzano (Washington Waves, February 14).

We think McCarville's fears are well-founded. Over the last two decades. Congress has lost many of the leaders who could be relied upon to carry the waterways banner into the budget fight. The new Congress, for example, is the first without two waterways stalwarts, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), who re-tired, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) who died last year. It remains to be seen whether other senators will step forward and take their roles as waterways champions.

After November's elections, the new Congress has a huge number of new members, and a very different outlook. Many of the new members got there with "Tea Party" support, and they may be more interested in cutting government at all costs rather than focusing on the value of waterways infrastructure.

As McCarville noted, the newest fad in Washington is to op-pose "earmarks," by which a member of Congress can use his or her influence to gain funding for a particular project. While op-posing earmarks may sound fiscally responsible, in fact the system is one way of sorting out congressional funding priorities. If members of Congress cant identify and push for valuable projects in their own districts, those decisions are left to faceless bureaucrats in agencies like OMB to decide which projects get the needed funds. We already know OMB isn't up to the task.

Will Congress step forward and come up with a responsible appropriation for the Civil Works program? Or will our valuable waterways infrastructure be doomed to a continued slow decay, made even worse by shortfalls in critical dredging?

As McCarville said. "People fear not only a reduction in the investment in new infrastructure, but even in the maintenance of that infrastructure. If you're not going to maintain it, everybody knows what happens to it. This is a tremendous resource that is at risk. It will be a very, very difficult decade if Congress pursues the path that it appears to be on. We're hopeful but we just don't know."