Law­mak­ers ‘cringe’ at pork-laden spend­ing deal Add-ons in­cluded dam, flood relief

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN AND JIM MCELHATTON

The debt deal re­open­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, hur­riedly writ­ten Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, be­gan to rot in the sun­light Thurs­day as law­mak­ers dis­tanced them­selves from some of the pork projects and other good­ies tossed in to sweeten the bill for law­mak­ers.

Sen. John McCain told CNBC that in­clud­ing the ex­tra spend­ing items “makes me just cringe,” while House mem­bers said they had noth­ing to do with writ­ing the bill, putting the blame squarely on se­na­tors and in par­tic­u­lar the cham­ber’s two floor lead­ers — the top Demo­cratic se­na­tor, Harry Reid, and his Repub­li­can coun­ter­part, Mitch McCon­nell.

“A dam project in Ken­tucky got ex­tra money, and the state of Colorado got money to help with its flood­ing,” said Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, South Carolina Repub­li­can. “Those may be worth dis­cussing, but that will never hap­pen now as they were crammed into this ‘deal’ in or­der to help it pass.”

The money for Colorado is a raise — to $450 mil­lion — in the cap on how much fed­eral aid can be sent to re­build roads af­ter that state’s dev­as­tat­ing floods this year.

The dam project, on the Ohio River be­tween Illi­nois and Ken­tucky, is get­ting the most at­ten­tion, how­ever. The bill raises the max­i­mum price au­tho­rized for the Olm­sted Locks and Dam from $1.7 bil­lion to $2.9 bil­lion.

The project’s lo­ca­tion im­me­di­ately left an­a­lysts look­ing at Mr. McCon­nell, who rep­re­sents Ken­tucky, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the sec­ond-rank­ing Demo­crat in the cham­ber, who rep­re­sents Illi­nois.

Both men de­nied in­volve­ment and pointed to the White House bud­get of­fice, which in­cluded the project in a list of pri­or­i­ties to be dealt with, and to two other se­na­tors who head a key sub­com­mit­tee and vet­ted the White House list.

Mr. Reid said the trou­bled Army Corps of Engi­neers project had to be ap­proved by the end of this year in or­der to avoid some $80 mil­lion in can­cel­la­tion fees.

Col. Luke Leonard, the Army Corps of­fi­cial over­see­ing the project, said the Corps is cur­rently op­er­at­ing un­der a price tag es­tab­lished at $775 mil­lion in 1988 and raised for in­fla­tion to $1.7 bil­lion now.

But in 2012, Corps of­fi­cials warned Congress that fig­ure was too low and that they would need ex­tra money, and came up with the $2.9 bil­lion price as their fi­nal cost, ver­i­fied by an out­side peer re­view.

Col. Leonard said the prob­lem is that they are near to hit­ting the $1.7 bil­lion cap and with­out an in­crease, would have had to be­gin shut­ting down the project next month. Ramp­ing back up later would end up wast­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars and leave them be­hind their 2020 goal for open­ing the dam.

The pay­off, he said, is worth $640 mil­lion a year in eco­nomic ben­e­fits once the dam is op­er­at­ing. In the mean­time, they are left hop­ing the 1920s-era wooden gates keep work­ing.

If key locks and dams fail, Col. Leonard warned, “com­merce in the lower Ohio River stops.” “That would be cat­a­strophic,” he said. The Ohio River project man­ager is San Fran­cisco-based URS Corp., whose po­lit­i­cal arm had been a big con­trib­u­tor to fed­eral politi­cians un­til a few years ago. The URS po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee gave nearly $300,000 to fed­eral law­mak­ers in the 2008 elec­tion cy­cle, in­clud­ing $10,000 to Sen. La­mar Alexan­der, Ten­nessee Repub­li­can, and $7,500 to Mr. McCon­nell, ac­cord­ing to records from the Center for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics. The com­pany’s PAC made no con­tri­bu­tions in 2012.

Still, URS has spent well in ex­cess of a half-mil­lion dol­lars lob­by­ing Congress so far this year on en­ergy and wa­ter ap­pro­pri­a­tions, among other is­sues.

Steve El­lis, vice pres­i­dent of Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense, a watch­dog group, said the project has been poorly run and be­set by de­lays, and shouldn’t have been in­cluded in the stop­gap bill.

“It seems to me that it just didn’t rise to that level of im­por­tance where it should have been in­cluded,” Mr. El­lis said. Law­mak­ers “could’ve dealt with this another way.”

What ap­peared to irk law­mak­ers the most was that the project was added to the bill at the last minute — un­like other spe­cial items, such as the $174,000 death gra­tu­ity pay­ment to the widow of the late Sen. Frank R. Laut­en­berg, which, while con­tro­ver­sial, had been in pre­vi­ous ver­sions of the bill.

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