Did McConnell score a kickback in the budget deal?
posted at 2:01 pm on October 17, 2013 by Ed Morrissey
Well, Kentucky scored some government cash, or at least might have with an addendum to the Reid-McConnell bill that has conservatives steamed. Eric Pfeiffer at Yahoo News reported on it last night, shortly after the House took up the bill and eventually passed it with significant Republican support:
However, the nation’s leading Republican senator came out of the deal far from empty handed. That’s because it’s been reported that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell secured language in the new government funding bill that includes nearly $3 billion for a dam project in his home state of Kentucky.
According to reports, a provision in the funding bill includes $2.918 billion in funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to install locks as part of the Olmsted Dam and Lock Authority Project on the Ohio River.
A recent investigation by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that the project has run millions of dollars over budget and should have been completed “years ago.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates thatthe project will not be fully complete until 2024.
The Wall Street Journal has more on the project:
One of the few groups to get extra money was the Olmsted Lock and Dam Authority, which is being developed byURS Corp.URS +1.27%, a construction management company that develops projects for the government. The lock and dam, which is under construction on the Ohio River between Olmsted, Ill., and Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky., would be authorized to receive $2.92 billion, up from $775 million. The company says the dam is one of the largest civil works projects ever undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will replace two of the original locks and dams completed in 1929. Construction will stop without more money, according to a summary of the bill.
Note, however, that phrasing, which is more accurate in the WSJ than in Yahoo. The provision raises the scope of potential funding for the project, but doesn’t actually appropriate the funds. The Washington Post notes the difference:
The provision does not allocate $2 billion; rather, it raises the cap for the amount Congress could allocate later. President Obama asked for it in his 2014 budget, and both the House and the Senate had passed bills allowing the increase this year. The House did criticize the Corps of Engineers, saying if it had managed the project better there would not be the need for the “massive increase” in funding authority.
The project, authorized in 1988, is intended to replace two locks and dams that were built in the 1930s.
So who asked for the raise in the cap? McConnell’s team said the request didn’t come from them:
It’s true that McConnell had requested “earmark” funds for this project in the past, according to a database of such requests kept by Legistorm. Did he request that its inclusion in Wednesday’s Senate bill?
“No, he did not,” Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said in an e-mail message.
Yeah, well, that’s not exactly a credible position, either. This isn’t an earmark, but it’s similar, and it was standard operating procedure for legislators to swap requests for pork in order to maintain some political cover. McConnell may not have requested it this time, but he’s pushed for it in the past, and it seems pretty convenient that it ended up in this bill. The question Cui bono? is never a bad one to ask in these situations.
On the other hand, Harry Reid was defending the cap raise yesterday after it got noticed:
Mr. Reid told reporters that it would have cost the government more if it withheld the money. When the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the money earlier this year, it said that abandoning the project was not a viable option and that it would be cheaper to finish the work than to simply replace the two structures. Replacing the two existing structures could easily exceed $3 billion, which would be in addition to the $1.7 billion that has already been spent on replacement work, a Senate report found. The project was first authorized by Congress in 1988.
So did an unnamed Democratic Senate aide:
If the program had to be shut down and then restarted, one Democratic aide said, the “cost to taxpayers would be an additional $80 million over the next six months, and $160 million if the project were terminated for one year.”
That pressing deadline was the reason that the funding was included in this bill. “Senator McConnell did not push for this provision,” the Democratic aide said.
Frankly, there’s so much bad blood between Reid and McConnell that I’d find it surprising to have Reid taking one for the Senate Minority Leader over a pork-barrel project that puts him in dutch with conservatives. Reid would like nothing better than to see McConnell fall to a Tea Party primary challenger, in order to have a better chance to grab the seat for Democrats in 2014. I’m inclined to think that Democrats want to spend the money here, but the economics of it are pretty laughable anyway. We’re authorizing potential future appropriations of $2 billion to rescue the $1.7 billion already spent in order to save $240 million? That sounds like Washington, regardless of which person requested it.