Along the Tracks

Thursday, September 15, 2005

How about a ‘BRAC’-clone for construction projects?

One of the lessons of the Great New Orleans Flood of 2005 is clearly the failure of Congress’s current system of project spending authorization.

Every half-dozen years or so, we get a new “highway bill” which splits money from the federal government for construction projects into two rough categories: State grants and funding earmarked for specific projects. Other funding authorizations also get “porked up” with these earmarks, but the highway bill is the main free-for-all to which each Congressperson looks forward.

Never one to stir the pot with a legitimate use of executive power, George W. Bush made an empty threat to veto this year’s highway bill if it did not fall into his guidelines for spending. This warning was made not to stop the addition of pork, but to limit the earmarks to within the profligate levels of spending where Bush is comfortable, and not beyond.

Thus, we had the spectacle of a “conservative” Republican president signing the pork-laden highway bill created by a Congress run by majority “conservative” Republicans.

If voters cannot rely on these supposed “conservatives” to control their appetites for taxpayer dollars, they probably cannot rely on anyone.

Meanwhile, as a great American city drip-dries, we see the results of the federal failure: Projects rated valuable and important by independent studies – like levy reinforcement – are brushed aside in favor of pork barrel projects which garner local headlines and keep local officials and political contributors happy.

As has been reported elsewhere, the federal government spent more on Army Corps of Engineer projects in Louisiana than in any other state, by far ($1.9 billion over Bush’s five years, compared to the next closest, California, at $1.4 billion). Yet the Corps found itself hamstrung by political agreements made by Louisiana’s congressional delegation, including former senators Bennett Johnston (D) and John Breaux (D), as well as present senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (a Republican who only became a senator this year but was a U.S. representative before that). These legislators took the pulse of local and state officials, business leaders and labor unions to figure out which projects were most popular, regardless of their value. If the projects didn’t make the cut according to the Corps, the Louisiana congressional delegation trumped the expert opinions with earmarks and interference for the less worthy projects, starving the necessary work of funds.

Few would argue these popular earmarks were more important than protecting the very lives of constituents from a well-known and certain-to-come danger. Yet Louisiana’s legislators did it anyway.

I noted the party affiliations above for reference only; the same actions occur in every state, whether run by Republicans, Democrats or a Red-Blue mix. Politicians simply cannot control themselves.

A similar conundrum faced federal budget planners as the Cold War was coming to an end. The American military was set up to fight a massive, geographically-dispersed enemy which had a variety of threatening means at its disposal. Once that enemy ceased as an urgent peril, many believed budget cuts and a new military focus should be implemented. But how and where? No senator or representative in his or her right mind would agree to closing bases in the home state or district, yet any realignment would undoubtedly hit a majority of elected leaders where they lived.

A rather clever solution was put into operation. After the Department of Defense makes its recommendations for closures and realignments, the outline is handed over to an independent, bipartisan commission. The BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission is a group of experts in military affairs, budgeting and economics which studies the suggested changes, makes any corrections, additions or subtractions it sees fit, then (after much public review and comment) presents its findings to Congress. At that point, Congress can only reject by joint resolution the BRAC recommendations in total; amendments are not allowed.

Base and facility closures and reductions are painful for the communities which endure them – no one wants to see the support jobs and secondary economic benefits disappear. Yet, ultimately, this independent review has helped the defense department improve efficiency and make crucial force changes which would never have been possible had any individual cut or closure required the approval of congressional representatives driven by self interest.

I suggest now is the time for an independent, bipartisan commission to be established for the development and approval of all congressionally-funded infrastructure projects in the states.

The process could begin (much as it does now for highway bills) with each state (working with its Congressional delegation) putting together its priorities, including the non-specific state grants. These would then be reviewed by federal officials (Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Commerce, EPA, etc.) and rated according to their value, necessity and impact, with public safety always a primary concern. The president’s budget team would then create a proposed infrastructure bill, based on the priorities from the states and recommendations from executive departments. This suggested bill, with a precise spending level, would then be handed over to the independent commission.

The commission would follow the same basic program as BRAC: Investigate the values and impacts, make potential adjustments, seek public input, make final adjustments, then present a finished result to Congress. Congress, with ultimate budget authority, would need to approve the bill in total, but could not add its own amendments – earmarks, or pork – to the legislation.

Such a plan would eliminate innumerable follies which individually seem annoying or silly, but collectively can be the roots of tragedy.

This plan siphons off some congressional authority to the president and to the states. It increases executive power by giving a president the crucial intermediate phase of preparing the proposed bill. It strengthens state authority by placing a premium on the initial step of outlining priorities.

Yet Congress could still reject the commission’s bill – or vote to fund projects (Note: Not “earmark” already-approved funding, but vote for new outlays) individually outside the infrastructure bill. These would both be high hurdles. One must keep in mind, however, that the goal is reform of a system which is expensive and dangerous. It might require some realignment of authority.

In the end, the nation would have a defined process, perhaps running in five-year cycles, which would clearly identify priorities and give a stamp of legitimacy to the choices made. This method would also encourage more long-range planning, as state and local officials consider the looks of their locales in 10, 20 and 50 years, and choose how to support those plans with federally-funded infrastructure.

Finally, it would place the burden for more local construction spending in the hands of local and state governments – closer to the tax base paying for it, and therefore by definition more efficient. If Cleveland or the State of Ohio wishes to put a Bee Gees wing on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, let them – with their own money.

UPDATE: Apparently, Sen. Brownback has proposed just such a commission. We should all make sure our own senators and representatives support his initiative. (Thanks, Andrew Grossman of!)

That is an excellent idea Paul and one I hope they adopt.
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