Moving Civil Works Has Been Proposed Before
On June 21, the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a comprehensive plan for the reshuffling of many departments and agencies of the federal government, titled “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations.” If enacted, it would be the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government since the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
Like other administrations before it, the Trump administration argues that the division of tasks and areas of oversight among too many federal agencies has resulted in bloat, inefficiency and waste.
One of these proposals would remove the Corps of Engineers civil works program from the Department of Defense and consolidate it within the Departments of Transportation and Interior. The Department of Transportation would get the navigation mission, and the rest of the program would go to Interior. The proposal would require congressional action.
The idea is not new. Before the 9/11 attacks, Norman Mineta, who was then the secretary of transportation, reportedly almost had Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld convinced to undertake a similar move. The debate took place internally rather than in public. But the Corps’ impressive performance in Iraq and Afghanistan convinced Rumsfeld to keep civil works within the Defense Department.
In fact, according to Mike Toohey, president and CEO of The Waterways Council Inc., the current Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) includes funds for studying just such a move. Toohey told The Waterways Journal there could be benefits for navigation interests to be represented and advocated for directly at the Cabinet level, especially by an active secretary like Elaine Chao who is knowledgeable about maritime issue, rather than having to go up through several layers of assistant secretaries to get to Cabinet level, as is the case in the Corps today.
Toohey notes that a lot of questions are left unanswered. What would happen, for instance, to the Corps’ civilian navigation team and other experts? Would they become MarAd employees? After such a reorganization, navigation interests would be funded by different committees of Congress. New relationships would have to be forged. WCI has not yet issued an official comment.
The National Waterways Conference (NWC) urged caution. It said project management issues in the Corps are being addressed. “The Congress and the Corps have both recognized the need to streamline the Corps business model, improve project delivery, and provide greater responsiveness to impacted stakeholders and the public. Both the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 and the WRDA of 2016 enacted policy reforms towards this end. Similarly, the Corps has taken additional steps to review its rules, regulations, policies and guidelines to ensure they are serving the nation’s needs. Moreover, pending legislation in the Congress, the House-passed WRDA of 2018, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, both call for a comprehensive study of the Corps’ structure and organization, whether it should be modified to lead to greater efficiency, coordination, transparency and cost savings, and the effects of transferring its functions to an existing or new agency.”
The NWC makes another important point. The Corps’ water projects and responsibilities have several purposes, some of them in tension with each other. “Keeping appropriate federal activities in water resources consolidated within a single agency offers an opportunity to optimize these competing interests, allows federal responsibilities for water to be properly coordinated with those at state and local levels, and protects the multiple benefits produced from the water resources projects.”
Allowing competing interests to have their say—in the comment process, for instance, but also through lobbying—can indeed make project delivery less “efficient” in one sense, but it is also a necessary part of democracy and making federal agencies accountable.
Author G. K. Chesterton had a famous saying about ambitious reform efforts: “‘Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” In recent years, the Corps appropriations process has been working better as the two political parties have come together for major infrastructure bills in which differences were successfully hashed out.
It’s far from perfect, but bipartisan cooperation on infrastructure has been a not-enough-noticed bright spot amid partisan rancor and social media hysteria on other issues.
Even though the reorganization proposal has arguments on both sides, whether it will actually happen in an election year is another question. Toohey concedes that the likelihood of Congress approving such a sweeping move is slim.