President Trump’s proposed sharp cut in the Army Corps of Engineers fiscal year 2019 civil-works budget faces strong opposition from senior Senate appropriators from both parties, judging from comments at a recent hearing.
Trump’s 2019 budget recommends slicing the Corps civil-works program to $4.8 billion, a cut of 29% from the level approved in the recently enacted 2018 omnibus spending measure.
Sen. Lamar Alexander [R], who chairs the appropriations subcommittee responsible for Corps civil works, said at the April 18 hearing, “In my opinion, we should spend more, not less, on our nation’s water infrastructure.”
The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), noted the $2-billion reduction from the total in the omnibus measure and said, “That’s devastating.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who chairs the full Appropriations Committee, also weighed in, saying that ports and inland waterways are critically important to U.S. commerce. “We must prioritize and we must fund these investments to remain competitive in the global workplace,” Shelby said.
He added, “We must meet our needs….It’s folly to do otherwise.”
R.D. James, Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works, defended the administration’s proposal. James said the 2019 request “reflects the administration’s priorities and [is] focused on investments that will yield high economic and environmental returns or address a significant risk to public safety.”
The Inland Waterways Trust Fund and Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund were a particular focus at the hearing. Alexander said the inland waterways fund had $104 million available for 2019 but the Trump budget recommended spending only $5 million—the lowest amount “in at least 20 years.” He said, “This year’s budget proposal is a huge step backwards for our nation’s inland waterways.”
Alexander also criticized the low number Trump requested for spending from the harbor fund, just $967 million. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that trust fund’s 2018 balance at $9.4 billion. Alexander said that proposal “fails to adequately fund our nation’s harbors,” including Mobile, Ala.—a top priority for Shelby—as well as Savannah, Ga.; Long Beach, Calif., and others.
Assistant Secretary James said the inland and harbor trust funds are “slippery animals,” adding that getting dollars out of them isn’t a simple matter.
Shelby noted that port needs are widespread and the trust fund has money for projects, “And we’re just sitting on it."
He added, *It might be slippery, but something’s wrong and we need to figure it out here in this committee. Maybe we can.”
The American Association of Port Authorities is hopeful that Congress won’t agree to Trump’s proposed civil works cutback, says Jim Walker, director of navigation policy and legislation. Walker, a former Corps civil works official, says that, among appropriators, “There seems to be a lot of awareness of the Harbor Maintenance Tax issues and a lot of support for spending it on its intended purpose."