Chicago Tribune: In the governmental soul-searching that followed Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers took much of the blame for the failure of floodwalls and levees to protect New Orleans from a catastrophe. Since then calls have increased for an independent review of the corps' notoriously expensive projects.
A new water resources bill working its way through Congress included a measure that would have imposed that long-overdue oversight of the corps' massive and expensive projects. Unfortunately lawmakers failed to complete work on the bill before they adjourned and headed home to campaign for re-election.
The reform measure is included in the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes billions of dollars in waterways projects, including a 3.8 billion lock-and-dam project and related environmental restoration on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The Mississippi River project is moving ahead even though river traffic has been declining in recent decades.
Too often, such big Army Corps projects are based less on objective standards of need than on the seniority and influence of their supporters in Congress. The members of Congress love to spend money, and the corps has been only too happy to oblige. So naturally there has been contention over reforms approved by the Senate to provide closer oversight of the cost and quality of corps projects.
The legislation, proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., would create a peer-review office independent of the corps to approve a broad set of technical and scientific aspects of major projects.
There is little argument over the need for outside engineers to make sure the corps' work is technically and scientifically sound. In fact, outside peer-reviewers worked alongside corps engineers during the last year to rebuild hurricane-protection systems around New Orleans.
But the McCain-Feingold proposals would expand the checklist of criteria for independent review and remove the ability of the head of the corps to waive the review requirements for any projects that cost more than 40 million.
Congress should impose routine oversight requirements on the quality and the costs of such projects. Considering the corps' track record and the amount of money at stake, this only makes sense.