Senator Inhofe: Leader in Appropriations Accountability

By Paul Weyrich

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

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Washington is famous for constructing acronyms. Many bills passed by Congress are titled with an acronym, public relations language or both. For those of you who may follow such things, there is a fair chance that you never have heard of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) Bill, which is unfortunate because the WRDA Conference Report is about to sail through the Congress but President George W. Bush has said that he would veto it. As much as I have been encouraging the President to veto bills this is not one of them. The President should sign the Bill as reflected by this Conference Report and I will tell you why.

The WRDA Bill would continue to provide a measure of discipline between the authorization and appropriations processes. When Congress was created all bills and conference reports were considered by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 1816 the Senate established the first eleven standing legislative committees, in 1867 the Appropriations Committee. The House later adopted the same system - standing legislative committees to originate or evaluate legislation, including appropriations authorizations, and the Appropriations Committee actually to appropriate funds to implement authorizations.

This system has worked well. The Senate with legislative jurisdiction, for example, may authorize $ one billion for transportation but if the Appropriations Committee appropriate only $800 million that lesser figure is enacted unless the full Senate increases it on the Floor.

It is a discipline which is necessary if Congress is to display any resemblance of fiscal responsibility. That brings us back to the WRDA Bill. In 1922, the Senate promulgated Rule XVI, which prevents the Appropriations Committee from legislating on appropriations bills. If there is an attempt to legislate an appropriations bill, the measure is subject to a point of order, which means a Senator can object and the language is stricken.

The WRDA Conference Report authorizes water projects by establishing criteria to be considered by the appropriators. Historically, Congress enacted a WRDA bill every two years but is has now been seven years since the last such enactment.

Let us examine the WRDA Bills of 2000 and 2007. WRDA 2000 contained 247 projects at a score of $5.1 billion over 15 years. WRDA 2007 contained 751 projects at a score of $23.2 billion over 15 years. WRDA 2000 contained 39 new project authorizations. WRDA 2007 contained 47 new project authorizations. WRDA 2000 was a one-year bill, just as Congress had passed a one-year bill in 1999. WRDA 2007 now accounts for seven years worth of infrastructure authorizations. WRDA 2000 contained 29 new projects. WRDA 2007 contains an average of seven new projects over 15 years.

The point is that the WRDA Bill, which is an authorization, contains a whole series of strict criteria which the appropriators must consider. Projects must have a favorable report from the Army Corps of Engineers. This is known as the Chief's Report. The Chief's Report demonstrates that a project is:

a) Technically feasible.

b) Economically justified.

c) Environmentally acceptable.

d) Projects must not waive the local cost sharing.

e) A Senator from the State receiving the project must request the project.

70% of the Chief's Reports authorized projects in WRDA 2000 received funding but many received far less than was authorized.

This is the critical matter. Without WRDA, the Appropriation Committee maintains the power to legislate on appropriations measures without almost no restraint. Language in the WRDA Conference Report provides the basis to challenge unauthorized earmarks by simply enforcing Senate rules. This authorization legislation is an important discipline against uncontrolled earmarking.

Senator James M. Inhofe (R-OK) is a dynamic leader in supporting the 2007 WRDA Bill, which the Senate passed 81-12, the House 381-40. He wants to preserve the authorization and appropriations system which has worked well since inception. Some conservative and other organizations are against the Conference Report because of its projected expense. President Bush has stated that he would veto the Bill. These and other conservative groups applaud the President. That is most unfortunate. If President Bush cares about how Congress operates, he would not veto the Bill. By vetoing this measure Bush would set a precedent for a disaster in this Congress and in Congresses to come.