Army Corps officials too often acquiesced to Congress' wishes, critics claim

Too many projects slugged as "high priority" that should have been deemed lower priorities than levee protection.

The Army Corps of Engineers fought alongside George Washington, dug the fortifications around New Orleans for Andrew Jackson, and once ran the military academy at West Point.

But not since 1824, when Congress appropriated $75,000 for the Corps to remove snags and sandbars from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, has the agency really been in charge of its own agenda.

This point was driven home on Monday, August 29, when the levees protecting New Orleans from the deadly waters of Lake Pontchartrain failed.

"The president's budget for fiscal 2005 is $3.0 million," explained a fact sheet on New Orleans-area hurricane-protection efforts updated by the Corps's New Orleans District this May. "We could spend $20 million if the funds were provided.... Several levees have settled and need to be raised to provide the [desired] protection. The current funding shortfalls in fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2006 will prevent the Corps from addressing these pressing needs."

The Corps has been predicting for decades that a massive storm could overwhelm the New Orleans levees, flood the city, and drown thousands of people. "There have been many times the Corps has asked for dollars and the money has gone elsewhere," said Lee Butler, a former Army Corps engineer. "From the time of Ronald Reagan on, administrations have not paid enough attention."

But when it comes to the priorities of the Corps, the White House is only part of the problem. It is Congress, using the power of the purse, that really sets the agency's priorities. And Congress, note numerous congressional watchdog groups, puts politics first when deciding which Army Corps projects to fund among the thousands of navigation, flood-control, shore-protection, and other water-management proposals from local officials each year. "There were high-priority Corps initiatives that were not funded as a result of member projects," said Scott Lilly, former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

"There are so many [congressional] mouths to feed, so everyone gets a little bit of the money," said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense. He said that even in Louisiana, Corps money has gone to waterway and wastewater projects that should have been deemed lower priorities than levee protection.

Donald Sweeney, a Corps economist-turned-whistle-blower, said the Corps plays a role, too. "The Corps is basically incapable of saying no to projects," he said. "Every district recommends every project as high priority, and when everything's a high priority, nothing is."

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Corps, said the levees in New Orleans were designed to protect the city in 99.5 percent of storms. Katrina fell within the 0.5 percent that planners had deemed an acceptable risk. "The government of this country, from the local up to the national level, needs to reassess what level of risk is acceptable," Strock said on Sept. 2. But even if the nation adopts a more risk-averse approach to flood control and other natural disasters, the Corps's culture of acquiescence to Congress's wishes -- and Congress's unwillingness to discriminate between pork and necessity -- will have to change.

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