Construction and waterways industries officials cringed when they saw President Obama’s proposed 22% cut for the Army Corps of Engineers civil works program in his fiscal 2017 budget request.

But leaders of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees Corps civil works spending are sending a clear message that they want to increase the $4.6 billion that Obama included in his budget for Corps civil works.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the energy and water subcommittee, said at a March 2 hearing on water-resource agency budgets that the sharp Corps reduction “is an enormous step backwards.” He also said that the amount Obama is seeking is less than the program received in 2006.

Alexander added, “In my opinion, we should be spending more, not less, on our nation’s water infrastructure.” He noted that in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending package, enacted last December, Congress approved a record $6 billion for Corps civil works.
There’s bipartisan agreement on the subcommittee on Corps spending. The panel’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), said the budget’s proposed Corps cutback and its 13% reduction for the Interior Dept.’s Bureau of Reclamation are “simply unacceptable when one considers all of the water resource needs our nation faces.”

Past budget requests have trimmed Corps civil works, but congressional appropriators rejected those proposals and added more money. Feinstein said, “I’m not pleased to have to play these games with the administration for yet another year.”

She told the administration’s witnesses—who included  Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy and Army Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick—“I hope we can come to some agreement on numbers that allow you to do the job well.”

Asked about the request,  Darcy said, “Given the fiscal realities that we’re facing with the President’s overall budget, [the request for] the Army civil works program is what’s affordable at this time….”

With the Obama administration leaving office next January, Darcy’s appearance before the Senate appropriators probably will be her last. It was probably Bostick’s final appropriations hearing, too— he has announced he will be retiring in May.

In the House, energy and water appropriations subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) also wasn’t pleased with the administration’s recommended figures for the Corps. Simpson said at a Feb. 26 hearing of his panel: “The irresponsibility of this budget request makes the committee’s job more difficult but we will continue our efforts to support a strong civil works program—one that will strengthen the economy, enhance public safety and promote healthy ecosystems.”