Sen. David Vitter has sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for an audit of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is planning to introduce a bill–possibly as early as tomorrow I was told by a staff member–that would cut some of the Corp’s red tape that have slowed projects that are years behind schedule.
Here is a Vitter’s letter to Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of the GAO
As you know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is our nation’s primary water resource development agency. The Corps receives a budget of almost $5 billion each year to study, design, construct, operate, and maintain a wide range of water projects for purposes such as flood control, navigation, hurricane protection, and ecosystem restoration. However, as the GAO, National Academy of Sciences and others have reported in the past there are many inefficiencies in how the Corps conducts its planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of water resources projects. This has led to a backlog of millions of dollars of projects that have not yet been started and hundreds of incomplete projects. These delays continue to increase the total costs for completing projects that were often authorized and started decades ago.
In addition, in light of the recent events related to corrupt contracting practices uncovered by the Department of Justice at the Corps, I believe that it is necessary to undertake a comprehensive audit of the Corps’ civil works funding and contracting practices. In particular, I would like the GAO review to focus on operation and maintenance activities, flood protection projects, environmental mitigation, coastal restoration, and emergency funding that the Corps has received during the period covering fiscal years 2004-2011.
As you conduct this review, I would like you to be alert for potential inefficiencies in how the Corps operates and to help identify areas of potential cost savings. The areas that I am particularly interested in as the focus of this review include the following:
(1) For flood control projects undertaken by the Corps during this period of time, to what extent did cost overruns occur on projects and what were the primary factors that contributed to the differences between cost estimates and actual costs?
(2) What internal controls and oversight procedures does the Corps have in place to ensure that irregular or illegal contracting practices are not occurring throughout the agency and how can these controls and procedures be strengthened?
(3) To what extent does the Corps coordinate with and provide updated information to its non-federal project sponsors regarding changes to Corps policy requirements, project scope and estimated/actual costs? Is this process transparent and to what extent does the Corps obtain non-federal sponsor buy-in to these proposed changes?
(4) For dredging contracts conducted for operations and maintenance, please provide information on how many contracts the Corps has undertaken during this period, and the costs associated with these contracts.
(5) How does the Corps determine whether to undertake functions and projects with agency resources or through private-sector contracts and do these determinations comply with Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A–76?
I recognize that this is a very large undertaking, and that this work may not be able to be completed under a single review but instead may require a series of studies over a period of time to fully answer all of these questions. However, I would appreciate it if you could place the highest priority on starting this work as soon as possible. Thank you for your attention to this request.
I have been told that Vitter has been waiting to find a Democrat to co-sponsor the his bill, preferably a fellow-member of the Environmental Public Works Committee, but he hasn’t got one yet. If he doesn’t get a co-sponsor, he will go it alone.
Democratic committee members include Max Baucus of Montana, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Shelton Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Kristen Gillibrand of New York. Barbara Boxer of California is the committee’s chairman.
I don’t expect Boxer will help sponsor the bill or anything else Vitter is involved in, but who knows.
The Corps has been under the gun in recent years, correctly so, for waste and the way it prioritizes projects. Most famous among the Corps failures was the sub-standard condition of the New Orleans levee systems prior to Hurricane Katrina. There are still problems with the levees, despite $10 billion allocated to rebuild the levee system after the hurricane.
In August of this year, a new federal rating system gave the levees a near-failing grade. The levees were rated Class II, which means that they are “unsafe of potentially unsafe” in the case of another major hurricane or massive flood event.
This is an important bill for Louisiana and Vitter should be supported in wanting to get to the bottom of waste and corruption in the Corps of Engineers. An audit might help get to the bottom of why so many critical projects in Louisiana have been put on the back-burner.
It will be interesting to watch where Vitter’s audit request and bill go, so stay tuned.