Politics & Policy

Soft Corps

The recent, sad history of the Army Corps of Engineers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the October 10, 2005, issue of National Review.

In the first year of his presidency, Jimmy Carter went to war with Congress over $239 million worth of funding for 19 public-works projects–most of them involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Carter rarely found himself on the right side of a policy issue, but as a trained engineer he could see through the Corps’ specious methods of analysis. The waste and fraud angered him. Once, as governor of Georgia, he had described a Corps study as follows: “It became obvious to me that none of the [Corps’] claims was true. The report was primarily promotional literature supporting construction.”

All of the various dams and water projects on Carter’s “hit list” drained taxpayers in exchange for scant economic benefits, but some invited catastrophe as well. One project, the Auburn Dam, was to be constructed near a fault line in California. A Bureau of Reclamation study had predicted that in the event of an earthquake, dam failure would flood 750,000 people, the state capital, and five military bases.

Though he successfully stymied that project, Carter lost the larger effort to end Congress’s use of the Corps as an opportunity for pork-barrel spending. Congress defeated Carter’s efforts to block Mo Udall’s crusade to irrigate Arizona, Sen. John Stennis’s Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway boondoggle, and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston’s traffic-free Red River project. Though Carter set ambitious goals for curbing the excess, most of his attempts ended in failure.

The misuse of the Corps for pork projects continues to this day and has left less money available for more important Corps functions . . .

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