Curbing the Corps

Few things are dearer to members of Congress than water projects in their home districts. So the congressional brouhaha last week when the Bush administration fired its civilian chief of the Army Corps of Engineers was no surprise.

Yes, Mike Parker, the former Mississippi congressman who held that post, had publicly criticized his boss's budget, which includes a 10 percent cut for the corps. Such disloyalty is not tolerated by the Bush White House. But legislators who decried the firing were looking beyond that.

They sensed a shot being lobbed over the bow of something sacred – their time-honored ability to earmark federal money for dams, levees, and straightening out rivers. Such projects are the essence of a strong congressional résumé – and of pork-barrel spending.

Congress's worries may be well-founded. The firing would appear to indicate this administration is actually serious about trimming a long- overpadded part of the federal budget.

While the administration's at it, why not back pending legislation in the Senate that would reform the way the corps of engineers does business? This bill would require independent reviews of sensitive corps projects, stronger environmental standards, and a greater financial contribution from states and localities.

Getting such common-sense reforms through Congress will be uncommonly difficult. At every step, a powerful lawmaker will surface who has a pet water project that just has to be done.

If it's a worthy project, it ought to be done. So let's have a process with objective means for assessing worth – not the current system of legislators eager for monumental public works and a corps eager to build them, marching in happy lock step.

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