Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) feel they made their point: They want their state’s flood-control needs to be a top priority for the next commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. In late April, they released their “holds” that had blocked confirmation of Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp Jr. to be the next Corps chief of engineers. Senate approval was expected as early as May 1, which would allow Van Antwerp to take command of the Corps from Lt. Gen. Carl Strock on May 17.
If that scenario plays out it would put Van Antwerp in charge of one of the largest federal construction agencies. This year’s Corps appropriations total about $12 billion for military projects and $4 billion for civil works. Those figures include construction, operations and maintenance, planning and studies.
In the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, large shares of those funds have gone to Louisiana. “We’re spending in Louisiana last year and this year a total of $6 billion,” Landrieu notes. “Our projects in south Louisiana dwarf anything else that is happening in the country. So while [the chief’s] job is countrywide...most of his money is being spent in south Louisiana and in parts of Mississippi and Texas.”
For Landrieu and Vitter, an immediate focus is preserving $1.3 billion for New Orleans flood control contained in a $124-billion supplemental spending bill. Congress approved the measure, which focuses mainly on Iraq war funds, on April 26. But President Bush vetoed it on May 1, largely because he opposes language setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. His veto probably will be sustained and Democrats will have to craft a Plan B that Bush will ultimately sign. The President also has criticized the bill’s non-defense spending. But Landrieu is optimistic that the final bill will have the Corps funds.
One of Van Antwerp’s first Louisiana-related tasks is producing cost estimates for bolstering the area’s flood-protection system to withstand a 100-year storm. Van Antwerp told Vitter those estimates “are due in July and will show a requirement for additional funds,” which the administration has committed to seek. “It’s going to be a big, big number, perhaps $5 billion to $10 billion,” says one industry source. The $1.3 billion in the current bill could be a down payment.
Corps estimate for Louisiana flood protection will be a big number, maybe between $5 billion to $10 billion.
Van Antwerp was approved by the Armed Services Committee on March 15, but Vitter quickly issued his hold, blocking a floor vote. Landrieu’s action followed in late March.
Vitter relented after the Environment and Public Works Committee, on which he sits, held a hearing and Van Antwerp responded to follow-up written queries.
Van Antwerp also fulfilled Landrieu’s criteria: meeting with Louisiana’s congressional delegation and local officials and visiting the New Orleans area. Accord-ing to Landrieu, officials who met Van Antwerp said, “He looks like our kind of guy.”