Senators spending blindly, aimlessly

Buried in Section 4010 of the Water Resources and Development Act on pages 315 and 316 is an earmark directing the secretary of the Army to conduct a feasibility study for a project on flood control of the San Francisco Bay’s south shoreline, restoration of the Bay’s salt ponds and “other related purposes, as the secretary determines to be appropriate.” No amount of federal tax dollars are authorized for the project.

The 4010 earmark is not unique, however, as there are 35 other earmarks in Title IV of the WRDA, 27 of which similarly do not specify an amount of federal tax dollars to be spent.

The bill — which mainly concerns the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — was reported to the Senate by its Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

The fact that no specific spending amounts are specified for these earmarks makes many of them essentially blank checks that senators arebeing asked to approve in effect while wearing legislative blindfolds. Some are merely curious, such as Section 4012, which mandates completion of a study first authorized in 1976 by a House committee for the Fountain Creek watershed in Colorado. Others are more contemporary, including Section 4014, which authorizes a study of Delaware’s Indian River Inlet for navigation.

Still others, such as Section 4004’s approval of a study of the Fruitvale Avenue Railroad Bridge in Alameda, illustrate the degree to which the federal government micromanages so much of our daily lives. Being open-ended, these earmarks make a mockery of the official estimate of WRDA’s cost at approximately $15 billion.

The truth is nobody, lest of all the senators voting for it, knows the actual cost of the bill.

There are other aspects of this bill that merit comment. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is offering an amendment that puts a hold on an earmark providing nearly $21 million to shore up Southern California’s Imperial Beach until the government delivers on promises to end the flooding threat that makes Sacramento even more vulnerable to flooding damage that was New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.

Speaking of New Orleans, a second Coburn amendment puts a hold on a provision of the bill providing construction of a new visitors center for Morgan, La. The hold would be in place until every displaced New Orleans resident has been provided stable housing. Coburn’s amendments are an opportunity for the Senate to get its priorities straight and to stop confirming, as it so often does these days, the truth of the Oklahoma senator’s maxim that “earmarks are the gateway drug to federal spending addiction.”

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