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Posts Tagged ‘Infrastructure’

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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That’s What Friends Are For

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, Politics on August 31, 2017 at 12:06 am

If there’s going to be an historic flood in the United States that requires the full measure of Federal response and recovery assistance, it might as well be in Texas and neighboring Louisiana.

That’s not to wish such devastation on the property and people, many of whom will struggle to achieve normalcy over a too-long recovery. It is recognition that the oil and gas-rich Gulf region has more than fossil fuels going for it. It has government power in Washington and more BTUs of it than have most other parts of the country.

Let’s start with those House Members whose districts are in the generally affected region, some more affected than others. These are politicians who naturally will be attentive to the needs of troubled constituents. Many of them sit on useful committees. Many are ranking on subcommittees. Of course, the more senior the person, the more influence he or she also is likely to have. Then there are the senators, who by their office usually wield more power than their House counterparts. Showing them in numerical order of districts, their terms served, and significant committee assignments —

  • Ted Poe (R-2nd TX) is in his 7th term, on Judiciary, subcommittee chair on Foreign Affairs, and co-chair of the House PORTS Caucus.
  • John Culberson (R-7th TX) is in his 9th term, and a subcommittee chairman on Appropriations.
  • Kevin Brady (R- 8th TX) is in his 11th term, chairs the House Ways & Means Committee and is leading the drafting of new US tax policy, which President Trump claims as one of his very highest priorities.
  • Al Green (D-9th TX) is in his 7th term, and a ranking minority member on Financial Services.
  • Randy Weber (R-14th TX) is in his 4th term, on Transportation & Infrastructure, and a subcommittee chairman on Science.
  • Sheila Jackson Lee (D-18th TX) is in her 12th term, on Budget, and is a ranking minority member on Homeland Security.
  • Pete Olson (R-22nd TX) is in his 5th term, on Energy & Commerce, andco-chairs the Congressional Refinery Caucus.
  • Blake Farenthold (R-27th TX) is in his 4th term, a subcommittee chairman on Oversight & Government Reform, and on Transportation & Infrastructure.
  • Gene Green (D-29th TX) is in his 13th term, a ranking minority member on Energy & Commerce, and co-chairs the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus.
  • Brian Babin (R-36th TX) is in his 2nd term, on Transportation & Infrastructure, and chairs the Space Subcommittee that is important to the Houston Space Center.
  • Clay Higgins (R-3rd LA) is in his 1st term, on Homeland Security,
  • Mike Johnson (R-4th LA) is in his 1st term, on Natural Resources.

…………

  • Ted Cruz (R-TX) is in his 2nd term, and is on Senate Armed Services and chairs the Space Subcommittee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, which also has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard and other maritime matters.
  • John Kennedy (R-LA) is in his 1st term, on the Senate Appropriations, Budget and Small Business Committees, and served five terms as Treasurer of his State.
  • Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is a medical doctor in his 1st term and on the Senate Energy & Natural Resources and Finance Committees.
  • John Cornyn (R-TX) is in his 3rd term, is on the tax-writing Finance Committee, and is Majority Whip, the second highest Republican leader in the Senate.

Beyond John Cornyn’s considerable leadership post, certain of the above committees will or can prove useful in the weeks, months and years of the recovery, some more obvious than others. Appropriations, Agriculture, Armed Services, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Small Business stand out but even being on Energy and Homeland Security panels can be useful in times like these. Likewise, the tax-writing committees where revisions to the tax code are being drafted.

Needless to say, it also helps to be a Republican, from a Republican state, when the White House and levers of government also are in Republican hands.

As icing on the above layered cake, I will add to the list Members from other regions of Texas and Louisiana. In no particular order —

  • Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) chairs the Financial Services Committee that oversees the banking and investment communities and in September will be taking to the House floor legislation to reauthorize and amend the National Flood Insurance Program.  The timing couldn’t be better.
  • Pete Sessions (R-TX) chairs the powerful House Rules Committee that decides, with top Republican leadership, what bills and amendments are allowed to be considered by the full House.
  • Michael McCaul (R-TX) chairs the Homeland Security Committee that has jurisdiction over Federal emergency response programs and Customs & Border Protection, whose personnel have been on the front line of the response to Harvey and are important in port commerce recovery.
  • Steve Scalise (R-LA), who as House Majority Whip is the third ranking Republican in the House leadership. (He has been recovering from gunshot wounds suffered this spring in an attack on Republican Members.)
  • Garret Graves (R-LA) chairs the House Water Resource & Environment Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the Corps of Engineers, whose engineering resources and funding are vital in clearing navigation channels, evaluating the structure of dams and levees, and studying improvements needed to better prepare the region for flood events.
  • Kay Granger (R-TX) chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Pentagon resources have been on display in rescue efforts.
  • John Carter (R-TX) chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Coast Guard, FEMA and other DHS agencies in its jurisdiction.

It is an impressive list that doesn’t include some other members of the Texas delegation who have subcommittee chairmanships not useful to mention here. Nor, as is apparent, are there Democrats listed with top party leadership posts. There are none in those states. Nor, as a consequence of their minority status, do they have committee chairmanships.

I will add two other names to the considerable resources available to the people of Texas and Louisiana as they look for billions of dollars in assistance to address infrastructure, housing and other needs. The two are are Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As Lyle Lovett might tell them, “You’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.” Both men are from coastal and port states that know natural disasters and have relied on emergency Federal assistance and resources for rebuilding. They know the Defense Department, its Corps of Engineers, and other agencies intimately. They are not in ideological when it comes to appropriating funds at a time like this. They are not likely to equivocate when colleagues need immediate aid. Frelinghuysen’s statement was issued while it was still raining in Houston and Beaumont:

My Committee stands at the ready to provide any necessary additional funding for relief and recovery. We are awaiting requests from federal agencies who are on the ground, and will not hesitate to take quick action once an official request is sent.

The people of Texas and Louisiana have the support and prayers of presumably all Americans…but they also have the help of friends in high places. That will come in handy.   Pbea