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A Thirty-Year Project: Fixing Civil Works

In Congress, Corps of Engineers, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Leadership, Ports, President, Water Resources on March 15, 2018 at 11:35 am

The US Army Corps of Engineers took it on the chin last week.  And the bruise can’t be easily hid when delivered by a certain person in the White House.

One of the things I will be starting off the meeting with is to continue to cut regulations.  We have a tremendous way to go. I think we are probably 40 percent of the way there.  Again, statutory requirements make it where you have to give a 90-day notice and then you have to give a 30-day notice, then you have to give a six-month notice. By the time you give all these notices, time goes by.  But still in 12 months, in fact at the end of the 11th month, we cut far more regulations than any administration in the history of our country, whether it’s four years, eight years or in the one case, 16 years. So nobody’s close. But we’re going to cut a lot more. We really have a lot more to go.

Trump Mattis

And we’re working with General Mattis very much and the Army Corps of Engineers, because they have been…uh, not so fast.  And they are slowing up some jobs, so we’re going to get that taken care of.  We’ve been working on that.  The Army Corps, you know EPA gets it done, and we’re all getting it done, the Army Corps has to follow much quicker. And we have to streamline it because they are in charge of areas of the country that really have nothing to do with the Army Corps so much anymore.  General Mattis is working to streamline that procedure and some jobs are being held up because of the Army Corps of Engineers.  They are fantastic people but we’re going to have to speed that up.

The Commander-in-Chief’s words about the Corps, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sitting to his left, nodding affirmatively, were said to assembled reporters and cameras in advance of the March 8th Cabinet meeting. (video)

The folks at Corps Headquarters may be excused for feeling a little unloved. At two House hearings that same week, the Corps’ contribution to slowing projects was voiced by Members of Congress, including the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) led a hearing not on the civil works program but on the president’s infrastructure proposals. The hearing’s sole witness was Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who dealt with committee questions about everything from the burden of electronic driver logging (ELD) on cattle transport to the Gateway passenger rail tunnel project on the northeast corridor.

During a discussion on the need to improve the permit process, which involves more agencies than just Chao’s DOT, Shuster added his own thinking.

One of the great places to start with permitting is the Corps of Engineers. I met with the Conference of Mayors and AASHTO and I always like to get a show of hands who has had a project, that they worked on…or want to work on, and that the Corps of Engineers has been a huge problem, huge challenge to the project. And every single person in the room raises their hand.  So that’s why subcommittee chairman Garret Graves and I are working now…on a water resources bill and one of the focuses will be a serious look at the Corps of Engineers and a serious look at why the [civil works missions] need to be at [the Defense Department]. Two hundred years ago it made sense. The Army Corps of Engineers was the only ones who could build a dam or roadway, but today there is no need for civil works to remain at DOD. It needs to move to a different agency. I would propose DOT. Secretary Zinke wants it to go to Interior.

In a bit of an understatement by the capable committee leader who failed have the full House consider his major aviation reform objective — moving air traffic control from the FAA — Shuster added that the taking civil works from the Corps would make for a “healthy debate.” (Watch the Shuster statement here on the hearing video.) He does have a more-than-willing partner in any effort to change the Corps. Garret Graves (R-LA) — a former staffer on the committee, then coastal program chief for Louisiana, now heads the Water Resources & Environment Subcommittee. Graves is openly critical of the Corps, will lead the writing of WRDA 2018, and is ready to make significant changes in the civil works program.

In the same building that same morning, a member of the Government Reform & Oversight Committee convened a hearing “Examining the US Army Corps of Engineers.”  Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-TX) of the panel’s Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and Environment said “we will discuss ways… project delivery can be stream lined” and led witnesses to address the hearing aim to “highlight ways for improved communication and interaction between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, localities, and the public where it conducts its work and projects.”

The subcommittee members and witnesses were not antagonistic toward the Corps but made clear how bureaucratic slowness extends project timing and costs. James Dalton, the top career civil servant at Corps Headquarters was also at the witness table. He pointed to process improvements made in recent years, but also acknowledged more should be done. Witness Sean Strawbridge, the new executive director at the Port of Corpus Christi, which is in Farenthold’s south Texas district, told a story that other port execs could cite as their own experience.

Starting with the initial congressional approval of a feasibility study, the Corpus Christi deepening project (45′ to 54′ ) has been in the Corps’ study-planning-construction process for 28 years…so far. Strawbridge noted in his statement that the project finally found a place in the Corps construction budget that the White House sent to the Hill last month.

When Garret Graves assumed the chair of his subcommittee, his press release stated he would have an expanded “role in shaping legislation to limit the scope and economic damages of agency regulations, shorten the time it takes for projects to be completed and bring efficiency to how the government works.” His Louisiana experience shaped a determined policymaker.

“Untangling the decades of bureaucracy and the culture of delay within the Corps, EPA and other agencies will take time, but we’re committed to helping lead the transformative change that has to occur to fix what’s broken in government operations. We’re going to work toward making Louisiana’s coast and the state’s need for hurricane and flood protection a case study on how it should be done – instead of another story of government failure.”

“The stupidity of spending billions of dollars after disasters instead of millions on prevention beforehand has to end,” Graves continued. “In the decades it takes the Corps to study projects, homes and businesses flood, vulnerable coastal communities disappear and taxpayers’ dollars are completely wasted. It’s time to partner with the private sector and turn dirt instead of talking and ‘studying.’”

The truth is that even as the Corps of Engineers takes a beating from its Capitol Hill critics, most Members of Congress probably still like having this military-led organization taking their orders for favored public works. But Congress also has had a role in creating and prolonging the problem. Both Congress and White Houses have managed to burden the engineers’ hands, programmatically and budgetarily. The policymakers write laws that the Corps and other agencies are charged with implementing, through guidance and regulation. Members of Congress add to workloads, including by pushing projects into the civil works pipeline, thereby creating a demand for greater dollar resources that the Corps is denied on an annual basis.

Will the Corps of Engineers’s responsibility for civil works be given to another part of government as Shuster suggests? It is very unlikely. But the threat of it could help Garret Graves set the table for some meaningful changes in policy.  Will the president’s pokes result in anything? Possibly. No doubt, his Defense Secretary passed the message down the chain of command to the desk of the new Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James.

In the mid-80s, when the Reagan White House and legislators set their sights on instituting new user fees and project cost-sharing as prerequisites for enactment of what became WRDA 1986, port authorities and other navigation project stakeholders said, okay, but also do something about the Corps process that made improvement projects 25-year undertakings. Over 30 years later — about the time it will take to get the Corpus Christi project completed — we are still talking about it.    Pbea

 

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A Budget Like None Other?

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, President on March 20, 2017 at 9:31 am

A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity.   [President Donald Trump in the introduction to his FY18 Budget Blueprint]

President Trump defines public safety in a way that accommodates a substantial reduction in environmental enforcement, diplomacy, and foreign assistance in order to spend more on the Pentagon and border enforcement. His zero sum approach adheres to current, statutory limits on overall Federal spending, thus there are clear winners and clear losers in his “blueprint” for the FY18 budget that was sent to the Hill last Thursday.

Donald Trump’s top-line budget — most details still months away — is the sort that Congress has not been seen in my 45 years working in Washington…and probably not for many decades prior that. Certainly not since some of those departments were created. Threats to cut the budget to some extent, yes. Largely empty campaign promises to eliminate departments, sure. But not a 10 percent increase for the single largest department that already has the equivalent of all other government agencies’ discretionary spending, combined.

Defense would see a $54 billion increase while the Transportation Department would see a 12.7 percent reduction, Labor Department 20.7 percent, State Department 28.7 percent, and Environmental Protection Agency 31.4 percent. Of the 13 Cabinet departments that are proposed for cuts only three are targeted for drops less than 10 percent. Only Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs are slated to see increases.

Consistent with the President’s approach to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility, the Budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to refine the proper role of the Federal Government. [from “Budget Highlights”]

The proposed budget does nothing to reduce spending in the aggregate. In fact, it challenges Republicans in Congress to set aside their first opportunity in a while for two legislative chambers and the White House to cut overall spending.

This isn’t the first time Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, of course. But it is as if it takes someone with no experience in government to know what are disposable missions and programs across the Federal government. Or, perhaps, it takes such a person to simply not care. Nineteen agencies — many small and obscure but among them the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Art, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Institute for Peace — are specifically identified for elimination. Other unidentified agencies apparently would be substantially weakened by cuts.

The president’s first budget message faces a predictably rocky road ahead. His own party may be in charge of Congress but that doesn’t protect Trump’s “skinny” budget — an average of two pages per department — from also being called “dead on arrival.” DOA is the usual label legislators apply to any president’s budget submission. However, it may be no more apropos than it is for Donald Trump’s first budget policy expression. A representative counter expression on Capitol Hill is that of fellow Republican Hal Rogers (KY) who served for six years as chair of House Appropriations.

While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. … As General [Jim] Mattis [and now Secretary of Defense] said prophetically, slashing the diplomatic efforts will cause them to have to buy more ammunition. There is [sic] two sides to fighting the problem that we’re in: There is military and then there’s diplomatic. And we can’t afford to dismantle the diplomatic half of that equation.”[The Washington Post]

House and Senate members of the president’s party have found a lot not to like. Favored programs and agencies would be cut, if not eliminated, on the non-defense side of the ledger. Some Republicans have also criticized Trump’s trumpeted “10 percent” hike in defense spending as misleading and insufficient. The chairs of the Armed Services committees claim that in actuality the proposed increase is only three percent greater than what Congress funded for the current year. They want more. Then there are the Republicans whose firm ambition to reduce and ultimately end deficit spending is not served by the White House proposal. (The president’s new Director of the Office of Management & Budget, former House Member Mick Mulvaney, was in that camp just months ago.) Intentionally, the new president’s budget does not propose to change the existing multi-year agreement in law that sets an overall spending limit.

Suffice it to say that the Democrats see a document that is easy to oppose. They promise to leave to the majority party the job of approving some form of it, gladly wanting the GOP to be on the record as cutting popular programs. The minority party members already are positioning themselves as not responsible for a government shutdown should the GOP not have the votes to keep the government funded. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement warns, in so many words, “don’t count on us to help pass your budget.”

If Republicans insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy. [Chuck Schumer (D-NY)]

As telling as the 62-page White House document is, the skinny budget will be followed in May by something resembling a full budget with greater detail that should formally indicate, for example, if the Diesel Emissions Reduction Grant program is proposed for elimination and how much less would be available for Port Security Grants. The May document might also be expected to cover other crucial detail that budgets normally provide.

The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes that “by focusing only on discretionary spending, this budget effectively ignores 70 percent of spending and 90 percent of its growth over the next decade.” That is a reference, substantially, to the defense and national security portion of the Federal budget and the Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid entitlement programs.

As stated earlier, the slashing and shrinking of domestic Federal programs and agencies is proposed to benefit the Defense Department with a $54 billion increase, in addition to plus-ups for the nuclear program and border security. Nowhere in the budget document is there a reference to the substantial sums that various independent reports have identified as being in reach with the adoption of Pentagon reorganization and other efficiencies. Might that come later?

Last note, to complete the picture: The Trump blueprint for FY18 is accompanied by a supplemental request for the current FY17 that includes an extra $33 billion for the Defense Department, the border wall, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

To read the Trump budget “blueprint” find it here. The 56th page has a table that provides a quick look as to how the proposed budget compares with current year levels.  Pbea

 

Word Searching the State of the Union

In Congress, Leadership, President, Transportation Policy on January 23, 2016 at 1:18 pm

President Obama’s annual State of the Union Address was an uneventful one for folks in the port and transportation business. That word, transportation, came up just once; port nary once. (It’s actually a game here in town to listen to see if a favorite topic is mentioned in the speech.  A colleague of mine downs a shot whenever he hears a key word uttered by the Chief Executive at the podium.

Interest groups lobby every administration to have an issue mentioned by the president as an indicator of his ambitions for the new year. Of course the odds for that happening are poor. And when it does, the mention does not always please.

I recall being less than thrilled when my home Port of New York-New Jersey was mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his annual address as having waste paper as a principal export commodity. His point was something about the country’s balance of trade, as I recall, but it was not America’s image that concerned me in that moment he was speaking to the nation.)

Back to this most recent SOTU, I noted that at one point Barack Obama uttered, “21st century transportation system.” However, no points were awarded (or drinks downed) as the phrase concluded a paragraph about investing in clean energy. Actually, the text reads as a bit of a nonsequitor, missing a connecting thought that his speech writers thought but didn’t write.  Here is the full paragraph:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

Perhaps the president was referring to a carbon tax that would be used, among other things, to support transportation projects….or maybe he wasn’t.

If anything, here would have been the perfect spot to refer to the recently enacted surface transportation bill that he sought, and signed, but apparently the subject was not deemed sufficiently important to take eight or so seconds to say how he and Congress actually got something done. A joint session is a terrible thing to waste. (Apologies to “the mind.”)

After all, it was a fresh memory of just a few weeks since Congress rushed the significant FAST Act to the president. Politico asked some of the transportation leaders in Congress if they were miffed by the non-mention.  Yes, they responded, and if not miffed, then disappointed.

The speech did include two references to trade related topics, which can have some meaning for port people who wanted AT LEAST SOMETHING said having to do with portstuff.

That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products Made in America, and supports more good jobs. With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.

Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.

Those have value to ports. Some ports have lined up behind the White House agenda for TPP approval, as has the American Association of Port Authorities, and indeed the Administration is asking port agencies and everyone else to make their support known on Capitol Hill where the negotiated, multilateral agreement faces an uphill battle for the consent of the Senate. Likewise, some ports, particularly those in the Gulf and South Atlantic, have worked for years to develop relationships in Cuba to be positioned well for a resumption of commercial relations. The Administration’s reconciliation initiative was welcome news to US exporters and gateways.

Both of those issues — TPP and Cuba — are ones that have the business community and the White House working as allies and a number of Democrats siding with Administration opponents.

So, there you go…a few words in the speech to note, but just a few. Is your favorite issue found in the 2016 State of the Union Address?   Pbea