Katrina shines spotlight

Members of Congress and lobbyists for coastal communities want to boost funding for the Army Corps of Engineers in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Members of Congress and lobbyists for coastal communities want to boost funding for the Army Corps of Engineers in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Spending-watchdog groups say it’s the way the Corps is funded, and not the amount that it gets, that creates problems. But Corps advocates hope that searing images of New Orleans residents suffering in squalid conditions and being plucked from rooftops will underscore the need to pay more attention to a variety of infrastructure programs.

As Katrina hit as a Category 4 storm, it brought a storm surge with it, overwhelming two levees that were built to withstand a Category 3 storm. In a scene eerily predicted by some experts, more than 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded and thousands of residents were left stranded, many of whom later died.

“For too long, the federal government has ignored the infrastructure needs of America,” said Harry Simmons, the mayor of Caswell Beach in North Carolina. He is also the president the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, an umbrella group of coastal communities that lobbies Congress.

“Fix things now or pay much more later — both in terms of dollars and, regrettably, lives,” Simmons said.

It usually falls to Congress, at the request of local officials and their representatives in Washington, to boost the Corps budget, which both Democratic and Republican administrations have tried to cut.

Lawmakers, fighting to bring earmarks home to their districts, end up spreading money over dozens of projects instead of concentrating efforts on a few high-priority programs identified by the administration, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, who has studied the Corps of Engineers budget.

“The Corps budget is an earmark budget,” Ellis said.

Instead of the Corps getting a pot of money to do with what it sees fit, Congress often explicitly than directs where the money can go.

Ellis said the administration requested $268 million for 41 projects in Louisiana for 2006. The Senate would provide $375 million for 71 projects for the state.

But not all are worthy of funding, Ellis said. He called a program to improve a lock in an industrial canal near New Orleans a “boondoggle” meant to accommodate an increase in commercial traffic that’s unlikely to occur.

The Senate bill would allocate $15 million for the program, which is estimated to cost more than $700 million to complete. The administration did not request any money.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, another spending watchdog, said congressional appropriations are often “misdirected.”

“Members add non-requested and nonessential projects in every area of the budget,” he said.

House and Senate conferees have yet to agree on the 2006 funding level for the Corps. The House energy and water appropriations bill would provide $4.8 billion to the Corps. The Senate would provide nearly $5.3 billion. Both would increase the Bush administration’s request of $4.53 billion.

Worth Hager, president of the National Waterways Alliance, a group of businesses that use the river system to transport commercial goods, said the Corps needs $8.3 billion a year to do everything on its plate.

“The Corps of Engineers is seriously, seriously underfunded,” Hager said.

But she and other lobbyists acknowledge that the Senate figures are likely the best the Corps can do.

“Conferees are facing a lot of pressure to go with the higher Senate numbers but are constrained by the lower allocation amount in the House,” one lobbyist said.

The loudest criticism of the Corps budget shortfalls, not surprisingly, has come in recent days from Louisiana officials, who have spent years lobbying for more funding for flood-control efforts around New Orleans.

Congress has routinely increased funding for two flood-control programs in the two areas breached by the storm surge Hurricane Katrina brought to shore, but local officials have complained that it wasn’t enough.

The administration asked for $10.5 million for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project, for example, in 2006. The House met that figure. The Senate, meanwhile, would provide $30 million.

The budget battle follows a familiar pattern. Congress provided $213 million, compared to the $151.5 million that the administration requested, between 2002 and 2005, for both Southeast Louisiana and a flood project along Lake Pontchartrain.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), however, asked for even more: $378 million for the two projects, a figure based on internal Corps estimates of “project capability.”

In response to criticism, the Corps released a statement noting that “project capability amounts are rarely funded.”

The figures represent the maximum amount of work that could be done on a project “assuming an unlimited supply of resources — financial, manpower, equipment and construction materials.”

Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said there is a near infinite amount of projects that could be funded.

“There is a huge amount of demand out there and not a lot of money,” Ellis said. “We have to prioritize our funding, and Congress is worse at the prioritization than the administration.”

He noted there is already a $58 billion backlog in authorized development projects at the Corps. The Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes funding for water programs and is three years overdue, would add $10 billion, Ellis said.