dams were congressional boondoggles -- 9/17/18
Today's selection -- from President Carter by Stuart E. Eizenstat. Dams were congressional boondoggles:
"Building dams and other water projects had become a very visible and politically profitable exercise after World War II, and [President Jimmy] Carter had initially supported them for power production, flood control and recreation. But he slowly grew to realize that dams came at considerable fiscal and environmental costs. From the [Georgia] governor's office he learned how the sordid system worked, through a Washington alliance of political convenience between members of Congress, particularly Southern and Western Democrats; the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which built dams east of the Mississippi and focused on flood control and navigation; and the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, which built them in the West to generate power and irrigate agriculture. As he put it in his antipolitical way,
'One of a congressman's highest goals in life was to have built in his district a notable dam at federal government expense that would create a lake that could be named for him. The process began when a newly elected legislator went in as a junior member of Congress. He would put his name on the list to get a dam built in his district. That dam might be at the bottom of 500 dams to be constructed in America. But as the congressman got re-elected time after time, eventually his particular project would move up to the top of the list.' ...
"[In 1977], the president began by declaring that he wanted to be a partner with the Corps but that he nevertheless wanted to delete thirty-five [dam] projects from the Ford budget and quickly undertake a study to assess them under 'new priorities.' A generation ago, he said, no one raised any environmental concerns, but 'I am concerned now.' [Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus] intervened forcefully to argue against deleting all thirty-five projects, only some of which were bad. He prophetically warned of a congressional coalition against Carter, ... recommended picking out several projects as bad examples so that 'the rest of the Congress will side with you and we can get rid of some of the big dogs, and that will mark a change in the way we do business in the future.' [Vice President] Mondale agreed; Army Secretary Alexander urged the president to start by developing criteria to measure the effectiveness of the water projects and only then decide which ones to delete from the budget. 'Otherwise,' he said, 'it will appear that the thirty-five were arbitrarily chosen.' ...
"Carter then formally announced a major review of water resource projects and threw down the gauntlet to Congress by announcing that his budget would cut off funds for nineteen that 'now appear unsupportable on economic, environmental and/or safety grounds,' and they would be reviewed with a view to saving $5.1 billion. He told Congress he would work closely with members 'to develop a coherent water resource policy,' but the horse was out of the barn. The hit list had been developed without a moment of consultation with Congress and no opportunity for the champions of the 19 deleted projects to make their case.
"One particularly sensitive project not on the list was an obvious sore point for environmentalists and fiscal conservatives, because it carried what looked like a political exemption. The Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, or TennTom as it was called, ran through [Congressman Thomas] Bevill's district and would connect the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers, offering a shorter route for Ohio River valley coal and other commodities heading to the Gulf of Mexico for export. Even the president recognized the political problems of trying to kill it. Representative Bob Edgar, a Pennsylvania Democrat allied with Carter in the Water Wars, described the project as 'moving more dirt than was moved to build the Panama Canal.' And they were just justifying it because they were going to move more coal than existed in Kentucky and Tennessee and rerouting the Tennessee River.
"Even worse, keeping it off the hit list did not in the least soften Bevill's intense opposition [to other Carter-proposed legislation], because his power depended upon being able to deliver projects for other members of his subcommittee and not just himself as its chairman. By the time the White House started to notify members whose districts and states were directly impacted by the projects on the hit list, they had already read about it three days before the president's announcement in the Washington Post under a banner headline, no less inflammatory because it was slightly inaccurate: 'Carter Will Ask Hill to Halt Aid to 18 Major Water Projects.'
"The reaction from the key members of Congress who focused on public works was one of outrage, which was only intensified by the way the White House formally delivered the bad news. Jim Free, the lead White House lobbyist in the House on the water projects, was given a list of congressmen whose projects had been dropped from the president's budget and told to call them. Admitting he was green and did not appreciate the gravity of his message, he recounted that he telephoned Arizona Republican Mo Udall and announced: 'Hi, I'm Jim Free from the White House and I'm calling to let you know that the president is eliminating the Central Arizona project.' And Udall said, 'What is your name?' And for years after that Mo Udall would have fun at dinner parties recounting the story and saying, 'I never forgot Jim Free's name.'
"Bevill maintained his support for the completion of the TennTom project, a boondoggle that took twelve years and cost $2 billion of taxpayer money to complete. Today there is a Tom Bevill Lock and Dam, one of four such structures, and a nearby Tom Bevill Visitors Center at Pickensville, Alabama. Carter had inherited a deficit of $73.7 billion, until then the largest in history, and wanted to reduce it by curtailing pork-barrel spending. If all 19 projects had been deleted, the savings during his first fiscal year would have amounted to a grand total of $289 million, and $5.1 billion over the life of their construction cycle.
"If Carter had applied any sort of cost-benefit analysis to the political price of these relatively piddling savings, he might have realized he would come out a huge loser. But he did not, and he lost big. At one meeting about a hundred congressional Democrats told Andrus that this was the worst political development of their careers. At a presidential briefing of congressional leaders, they told him he simply did not understand what a threat this was to them."