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Issue Brief #4097 on Energy and Environment

November 26, 2013

Necessary Reforms in the Water Resources Development Act Conference Bill

By

Congressional leaders intend to produce a final Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill this year, and House and Senate conferees have begun formally meeting to discuss reconciling their respective bills. Neither chamber passed a true reform WRDA bill, though the House lawmakers adopted the “reform” moniker in the H.R. 3080 title, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. They wanted to signal they were diverging from the pork-laden WRDA bills of the past, yet the bill still did not include crucial reforms that save money, reduce bureaucracy, and limit the federal government.[1]

The Senate-passed bill is even more lacking in reforms and would increase costs to taxpayers, double down on bureaucratic barriers to efficiency at the Army Corps of Engineers, and maintain the status quo of the Corps’s sprawling mission in projects that are not federal responsibilities.[2]

Ways to Reform

The House and Senate conferees have already begun to formally hash out the differences between their two bills, which are small in some areas and significant in others. “I am confident at the end of the day we can resolve our differences and achieve a successful conference report,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R–PA) said recently.[3]

The table below describes six policy issues, including what the House- and Senate-passed bills have or have not done to them and recommended policies to truly reform water resources. These reform proposals would accomplish the following:

  • Prioritization. Aggressively deauthorizing projects to get control of the Corps’s project backlog before authorizing a slew of new projects would enable the Corps to prioritize its work. New authorizations should be given only for projects that are national in scope, which would exclude many parochial projects that are currently authorized.
  • Devolution and limiting the Corps’s mission: Transitioning from an ad valorem (according to the value of the ship’s cargo) harbor maintenance tax to a user fee based on a ship’s dredging needs would better reflect harbor maintenance costs and begin addressing cross-subsidies between ports. It would pave the way for increased private-sector management of port maintenance. Also, phasing out programs such as beach nourishment and recreation site management would save taxpayers money and rightfully limit the Corps’s mission in favor of more state, local, and private management.
  • Force efficiencies and lower costs. Requiring that projects yield twice as many benefits as costs would limit the authorization of low-value, local projects. Maintaining cost-share rules established in the 1986 WRDA is important for limiting federal costs and incentivizing local project sponsors to pursue affordable, sustainable projects.

A Big Job to Do

The conferees have a big job to do: preserve the few positive reforms in their respective bills and do away with the costly, wasteful policies that would increase spending and the Corps’s to-do list. They should rigorously pare down the Corps’s project backlog, reform or establish meaningful cost-shares between the federal and non-federal entities, and phase out or eliminate certain programs that would be more appropriately and efficiently managed by states, localities, and the private sector.

—Emily J. Goff is a Research Associate in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Show references in this report

[1]See Emily J. Goff, “House Water Resources Bill: Shortcomings Threaten to Overshadow Reforms,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4080, September 17, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/09/house-water-resources-bill-shortcomings-threaten-to-overshadow-reforms.

[2]Taxpayers for Common Sense, “Analysis of Selected Sections of S. 601, Water Resources Development Act of 2013,” March 20, 2013, http://www.taxpayer.net/images/uploads/downloads/TCS_WRDA_Senate_Committee_Bill_Analysis.pdf (accessed November 20, 2013).

[3]Kevin Robbillard, “WRDA Conference Leaders Express Confidence,” PoliticoPro Whiteboard (subscription required), November 20, 2013, https://www.politicopro.com/transportation/ (accessed November 20, 2013).

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