Testimony of Senator Russ Feingold
Hearing on Water Resources Needs and the President’s Budget Proposal for the Army Corps of Engineers for Fiscal Year 2008
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
March 15, 2007
As Prepared for Delivery
Chairman Baucus, Senator Isakson, distinguished colleagues, thank you for inviting me to testify before you today on an issue which I have spent a lot of time on over the past years: passing meaningful reform of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Seven years ago, my friend from Montana, Senator Baucus, and former EPW chairman Senator Bob Smith, committed to helping me move forward on Corps Reform. Back then I never would have guessed that enacting Corps reform would take longer than enacting campaign finance reform, however, we have made progress in this vital effort. In WRDA 2000, I agreed to a National Academy of Sciences study on independent review. We have received this study—along with many others calling for reform. Since 2001, I have introduced seven reform bills with my colleagues, including Senators McCain and Ensign and former Senators Daschle and Smith.
And last year, I was also able to work with this Committee, and in particular Senators Inhofe, Jeffords, Bond, and Baucus, to include many key reforms in the WRDA bill that passed the Senate. We were also able to pass a much-needed independent review amendment on the Senate floor. I am especially appreciative of the work done by the cosponsors of that amendment, Senators McCain, Carper, Lieberman, Collins, Snowe, and former Senator Jeffords, in ensuring its passage. I also want to thank the members of this committee, including Chairman Boxer, Chairman Baucus, and Senators Carper, Clinton, Lautenberg, Voinovich, and Alexander, for supporting that independent peer review amendment.
As we look forward to a possible WRDA 2007, I would like to again remind my colleagues of the need for reform; and the minimum reforms that must be enacted.
Since 1994, more than 30 major reports have been issued calling for reforming the Corps and/or pointing out stunning flaws in Corps projects and project studies. These include, among others:
· Eleven studies from the National Academies of Sciences and Public Administration;
· Seven reports from the Government Accountability Office;
· Five major engineering studies, including an assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ and a study by the Corps itself;
· The Katrina investigation by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs;
· An investigation by the Department of the Army Inspector General; and
· A report by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.
I would like to ask that a full list of these reports be placed into the record.
Just one year ago, the GAO issued a scathing report on the Corps’ planning process. I also ask that the entire report, entitled Corps of Engineers, Observations on Planning and Project Management Processes for the Civil Works Program, be placed in the record. Unfortunately, neither the GAO nor any of a number of other expert reform witnesses, were called to testify today. The GAO found that recent Corps project studies:
“were fraught with errors, mistakes, and miscalculations, and used invalid assumptions and outdated data. Generally, GAO found that the Corps’ studies understated costs and overstated benefits, and therefore did not provide a reasonable basis for decision-making.”
As the nation bore witness in August 2005, the failings at the Corps have very real consequences. As we all know, Hurricane Katrina produced one of the most tragic and costly disasters in our nation’s history. But the problems caused by Katrina in New Orleans were largely the result of human, not natural, intervention.
Water resources projects authorized by Congress and planned by the Corps led to significant losses in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands that were not available to help buffer Katrina’s storm surge. An underused Corps-built navigation channel funneled and intensified that surge into New Orleans. The hurricane protection levees planned and built by the Corps encouraged the development of high risk areas that suffered the brunt of Katrina’s flooding. And it is now tragically clear that the city’s fate was sealed by the Corps’ faulty design and engineering of the floodwall and levees that were supposed to protect the city.
All of this happened despite Congress sending a significant amount of money to Louisiana water projects. In the five years preceding Katrina, Louisiana water projects received $1.9 billion – far more than was received by any other state – but only a pittance went to bolstering the city’s levees.
We can – and must – do better. The evidence supporting reform is overwhelming. The bill that Senator McCain and I introduced last month, S. 564, would correct the failings at the Corps and provide clear policy directives to ensure that Corps projects protect our communities and the environment, and make sound use of our scarce federal resources.
My bill would institute the independent review language that passed the Senate as an amendment last year. That provision was carefully designed to ensure reliable and meaningful independent review of costly or controversial Corps projects. The provision establishes clear review triggers, ensures the independence of the review panels, and responds to the National Academy of Sciences’ caution that independent peer review panels must have the benefit of public comment on a draft Corps report if the panel’s review is to be meaningful. I ask that a letter I recently received from Dr. Shabman, the Chair of the NAS study, be inserted in the record on this point. The provision also establishes an outside safety assurance review for critical flood damage reduction projects.
My bill would also modernize the Principles and Guidelines that form the basis for how Corps projects are planned. It would also improve the way Corps project impacts are mitigated—though mitigation requirements were put in place in WRDA 1986, loopholes need to be closed and language strengthened to ensure proper mitigation when Corps projects damage the environment. Weaker versions of both of these reforms were included in last year’s Senate WRDA.
For the benefit of hard-working taxpayers, my bill would also institute a system to prioritize projects so that those of the highest national interest are funded and completed on a timely schedule. During last year’s WRDA debate, Chairman Baucus called for “a robust program of independent peer review and project prioritization.” I couldn’t agree more. He pointed out that “The Corps currently has a $58 billion project backlog and a $2 billion a year project budget. At that pace it would take the Corps roughly 30 years just to work through the backlog of projects.”
We must come to grips with the need to manage the list of deserving projects so that we can complete projects on schedule and according to the greatest need and merit. I appreciate the commitment I have from Chairman Boxer to work together to develop a mechanism to prioritize projects that would address her concerns with the prioritization provision in my bill. It is essential that Congress come up with a way of determining how best to allocate scarce taxpayer dollars among water projects.
We have an historic opportunity to reform the beleaguered Corps, and we must seize this chance. Just as we cannot afford to look the other way, we also cannot go weak on reform just to get a bill through. I ask my friends sitting on this Committee; don’t you want to ensure that the projects in your state aren’t the next national headline? Just yesterday a New Orleans Times Picayune editorial, which I would like to insert for the record, admonished the House for sticking to its pre-Katrina reforms. We have a responsibility to our constituents to do better than that. We must enact meaningful reforms in this year’s WRDA.
I again thank the Committee for letting me testify, and I look forward to working with you throughout the Water Resources Development Act process. I do have to return to a Judiciary Committee meeting at this time, so I will not be able to stay for questions.