A Zero-cost Solution to America’s Infrastructure Problem.

Last month, the National Review ran a piece characterizing earmarks as the root of all evil and dysfunction in Washington. This week, a group of Senators issued another warning of efforts underway “to revive the disdainful practice” of earmarking. Both the article and the letter offer a dishonest representation of the role of earmarks in the legislative process, greatly exaggerate their impact on the overall budget, and wrongly equate my efforts to restore earmarks in a limited fashion with a full-fledged repeal of the earmark ban. I want to set the record straight on a number of my critics’ claims.

1. “The best evidence that Washington has not changed its big-spending ways is the continued push by some members of Congress to revive earmarks. Led by Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, they attempted to eliminate the ban on earmarks from House rules” — The National Review

This is a complete and utter falsehood. I offered a minor amendment to the earmark moratorium in the GOP Conference rules to allow Congress to expedite needed investments in our country’s aging water infrastructure. Specifically, my proposal would establish limited exceptions to the earmark ban for vetted water resources development projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation — all without increasing our current level of spending by one cent.

In its newly-released 2017 Infrastructure Report Card — which regularly evaluates the condition and performance of America’s infrastructure — the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned our nation’s dams, inland waterways, ports and levees a collective D+. It is imperative to the success of our economy that we improve this vital infrastructure, which includes over one thousand Corps-managed ports and 25 thousand miles of Corps-maintained inland waterways that serve over 40 states. In our western states, Reclamation facilities deliver water to one out of every five western farmers who grow 60 percent of our nation’s vegetables.

2. “ Fondly described as a “favor factory” by a lobbyist convicted of exchanging gifts for government grants, earmarks represent the pay-to-play culture you have pledged to end. It is unfathomable to those of us who fought to end earmarks and witnessed our colleagues go to jail for corruption that pork barrel politics would return.” — Senator Jeff Flake

Political sensationalists fail to acknowledge that Corps and Reclamation projects are routinely underfunded by the executive branch and do not offer a viable solution other than redirecting attention to the isolated incidents of corruption that took place over a decade ago. Those former politicians and lobbyists who broke the law have gone to jail, and rightfully so, and I expect that either our voters or the courts will send us packing if we make the same unethical mistakes of the past.

When Congress enacted the ban in 2011, we had good intentions of reforming the system and reining in spending. However, what we didn’t fully consider was the impact of the earmark ban on our ability to influence funding for geographically-specific Corps and Reclamation water projects, which must undergo extensive feasibility, economic, and environmental reviews before they can be approved by Congress.

Once these projects are authorized, they need to be funded. However, the earmark ban prevents Congress from funding projects the executive branch doesn’t include in it’s annual budget request, leaving the fate of economically-important dam safety, water quality, flood control, harbor maintenance and ecosystem restoration projects across the country squarely in the hands of federal bureaucrats.

“The idea that Congress needs to rescue spending from federal bureaucrats is misleading. For example, in the latest Surface Transportation Bill, traditionally a prime target for earmarks, 92 percent of funding is distributed to the states with limited strings through specific formulas, giving state and local governments the final say over funding decisions.” — The National Review

Once again, my detractors employ the use of a red herring to avoid acknowledging the differences between my proposal and traditional earmarks. First of all, the Surface Transportation bill has nothing in common with the annual appropriations bills that fund Corps and Reclamation projects. Unlike highways and municipal water infrastructure, federal funds for Corps and Reclamation water infrastructure projects are not distributed directly to state and local governments and are not calculated using a specific formula. Rather, 85 percent of the Corps budget is controlled by executive branch employees, not Congress or the states, who exclusively decide the fate of funding for specific projects across the country.

In my own backyard, the Corps is 100 percent responsible for the construction and funding of the Herbert Hoover Dike which protects communities around Lake Okeechobee from flooding. Although Florida experienced record amounts of rain last year, the Corps did not respond appropriately, providing less than half of the amount required to prevent the aging structure from catastrophic failure.

Further, the executive branch has frequently chosen to ignore the suggestions of Congress and ignore authorized projects as they see fit. For instance, although Congress authorized 34 port-related projects in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, the executive branch only funded two of those projects in 2016.

Across the country, there are ports that require dredging and outdated flood control structures awaiting life-saving repairs that have state and local funding sources lined up, but are still waiting for the feds to pay their fair share.

4. “With the serious fiscal problems facing our nation, processing thousands or even hundreds of pork requests will only distract and delay addressing pressing national needs and push spending decisions once again into the murky shadows.” — Senator Jeff Flake
Under-funding critical infrastructure is not just a threat to public safety, but it costs taxpayers more money in the long-run.

For example, from 2005 to 2016, post-disaster infrastructure failures required a total of $31 billion in emergency funding from Congress, which nearly equaled the Corps’ regular budget for the same time period of $55 billion. Unlike projects funded in the Corps’ regular budget, most of the emergency funds for flood fighting or repair of damaged infrastructure are not subject to significant public reporting or local cost share requirements. If we invest in the many authorized Corps projects still awaiting funding on the front end, we can save taxpayer dollars in the long-run and mitigate the impact of future natural disasters.

Detractors like Senator Jeff Flake appear to care more about publicity stunts than they do about addressing our nation’s rising debt — particularly given that our debt is not driven by Army Corps and Bureau of Reclamation water project funding, which comprises roughly one percent of our entire discretionary budget.

I believe Congress can prove to the American people that we can be trusted to spend their tax dollars responsibly, ethically and in an transparent manner out in the bright sunshine.

Six years into the earmark ban, and we’re still blaming the symptoms of Washington’s dysfunction on a fictitious boogeyman rather than a few bad actors who exploited our institutions for personal gain almost a decade ago. Many so-called conservatives claim that those of us advocating to restore Congress’ Article I authority are driven by power and greed, hiding our true intentions. Yes it may be politically risky to suggest that politicians and earmarks should be trusted in a room together again — but I think it’s riskier to continue the broken status quo for political expediency.