Signals are strong that Congress will reject President Trump’s proposed sharp spending cut in fiscal year 2018 for the Army Corps of Engineers civil-works program, which includes funds for river locks and dams, flood control and environmental restoration projects.
Trump’s FY18 budget request, sent to Congress on May 22, would slash Corps civil-works spending by $1 billion, or 17%, to $5 billion. But a House appropriations subcommittee has spurned the president’s proposal. The panel cleared a bill on June 28 that recommends increasing Corps 2018 civil-works spending by 2%, to $6.16 billion. [Read the draft bill text.]
In the Senate, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee in charge of Corps spending, said at a June 28 hearing on the agency’s budget that Trump’s proposed $1-billion cut for Corps civil works would be “an enormous step backwards.” Alexander said, “We should spend more, not less, on our nation’s water infrastructure.” [Read text of Alexander's prepared statement.]
The Senate subcommittee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.,) agreed, saying Trump’s proposed cut for Corps civil works “is really horrendous.”
John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says, “I think it’s pretty clear that it’s highly unlikely that anything close to the administration’s budget proposal for the Corps of Engineers for FY18 is going to be approved by either the House or Senate appropriators.”
In the House subcommittee’s bill, the big winner among civil-works accounts is operation and maintenance, which would climb by $370 million, or 12%, to $3.52 billion. Trump had proposed a reduction of $49 million, or less than 2%.
Doyle, a former senior Army civil works official, says that, among appropriators, “That O&M account deservedly continues to attract attention and support and additional dollars.”
Jim Walker, American Association of Port Authorities director of navigation policy and legislation, says AAPA is awaiting the House bill's detailed project breakdown, but adds, "On the surface, things look very good for navigation."
Walker also was pleased to see that the House subcommittee FY18 measure includes spending $1.34 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, up from $1.3 billion this year. That increase meets the trust fund spending target set in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, he notes.
Not all of the House appropirations panel’s spending arrows point upward, however. The subcommittee’s bill recommends trimming the Corps construction account by 10%, to $1.7 billion. Still, that’s an improvement over Trump’s request to slash Corps construction by $856 million, or 46%, to $1 billion.
It’s still early in the fiscal 2018 appropriations round. The full House Appropriations Committee and Alexander’s Senate subcommittee aren't expected to take up their bills covering the Corps civil-works budget until after the July 4 break. But the early signs are encouraging for the Corps and engineering and construction firms that bid on its contracts.
A wild card is Trump’s proposed, but not released, initiative to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, including $200 billion in direct federal investment. The plan is expected to include aid for Corps projects, such as upgrades to locks and dams.
The Army’s chief of engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, told the Senate subcommittee members that, months ago, “When we heard about the infrastructure package, [we] were aggressive to seek out the administration, [find out] who’s putting this package together, fought our way into the right rooms” to brief officials about civil-works needs.
Semonite added, “We were able to say, ‘Not only are [there] great requirements that our nation has, but here are some things you could streamline, some of those processes that don’t necessarily allow the most valid requirements to get the funds.’”