Technically It Isn't Pork, but It's Close

a crane prepares to load a container onto the cargo ship Asian Moon in the Port of Miami. a crane prepares to load a container onto the cargo ship Asian Moon in the Port of Miami. Alan Diaz/AP file photo

From the so-called "Great Wall of Louisiana" to Everglades-related needs to port-deepening in Oregon, a once-familiar type of bragging fever has returned to lawmakers this week as they seek credit for projects contained in a House-Senate deal on an $8.2 billion water-infrastructure bill.

Legislative earmarks that for decades were placed in spending bills as lawmakers' local pet projects no longer exist due to a congressional ban—technically, at least. But today a close cousin to outlawed pork is alive and well, as evidenced by the chest-pumping over upcoming action on the first Water Resources Development Act conference agreement since 2007.

House and Senate conferees last week privately reached agreement after nearly six months of negotiations on their respective versions of a bill to authorize funding for improvements to ports, waterways, and projects tied to flood protection, drinking water, dams, and environmental restoration.

The legislative text of their compromise is expected to be released Tuesday, and the bill is up for votes in the Senate this week and the House next week. President George W. Bush vetoed the last bill in 2007, only to see the Democratic-controlled Congress override it. This year's bill is not expected to face such a bumpy ride.

Steve Ellis of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense reminds that an authorization is only "a license to hunt—money, that is." A project's inclusion in this measure does not guarantee funding in the appropriations process.

Still, getting a project into an authorization measure is a necessary first step in securing that money in a later spending bill, if ever. And lawmakers aren't about to let their success in that go unheralded.

Even before the bill's contents have been publicly released, some members are dishing out press releases about projects included in WRDA for their districts and states.

"This is a major hurricane and flood protection bill that will provide safety for Louisianans," declared Sen. David Vitter in a news release listing several items, including the massive Morganza-to-the Gulf-project, a complex set of hurricane and storm damage-reduction works that some critics have dubbed the "Great Wall of Louisiana." (Some call it a boondoggle.)

Vitter is the lead Senate Republican negotiator on the bill, which helped to give him a head start on bragging about what's actually in it. But Vitter is not the only conferee to have rushed out press releases or statements.

"Happy to sign #WRRDA conference report, which includes more $$ for dredging Oregon ports," tweeted Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat.

"The WRRDA Conference report is good news for the whole state of Florida," said another conferee, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla. "Along with Authorization for both Mile Point and JAXPORT channel dredging, the Conference report includes authorizing language for the Central and South Florida Everglades project, Port Canaveral Harbor, Lake Worth Inlet, and Biscayne Bay."

Budget watchdog Ellis and others note that the hard part it still to come. Left out of most of these boastful press releases are explanations that most projects—though listed in an authorization bill—may never actually see a dime of federal money through the appropriations process.

In reality, there is a backlog of authorized projects that would cost between $60 billion and $80 billion. The House version of WRDA will seek to "de-authorize" about $12 billion worth of those projects.

There are other things to look for in the conference agreement this week, including some proposed reforms. One big change, according to several lawmakers' press releases, would set aside more money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for port development. Currently, almost half of the fund is transferred each year to the federal budget's general fund.

The result has been the shortchanging of some states such as California, where many coastal cities say they are paying more into the harbor fund than they get back. California ports have fewer dredging needs than other parts of the country, so they've been pushing for expanded use of the fund for other types of projects dockside.

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