Today’s post features commentary from guest author Julie Minerva.
I must admit, my right hand is numb from hitting the refresh button on my computer since about 11 am EST on Tuesday. That’s because this week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) was expected to release the Fiscal Year 2017 work plan. That finally happened around 6 pm EST on Wednesday (see previous blog post) and I’ve been combing through its pages ever since. The work plan is a companion document to the annual Energy & Water Appropriations bill and in the absence of earmarks, it’s how projects that didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the President’s budget get funded and also how new studies and new construction projects win coveted new start designations.
In any given year only a handful of new starts are given out nationwide making this a highly competitive process. Studies and projects looking to advance must clear through several approval processes within the Corps, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (ASA) and finally the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the hopes of being selected. This roughly translates to crawling under barbed wire, jumping through rings of open flames, and holding your breath under water for at least 2 minutes. It’s like a full season of American Ninja condensed into a few weeks time. But if you’re successful, it’s well worth the effort.
In the FY17 Omnibus Appropriations bill (PL 115-31) Congress directed the Corps to produce a work plan within 45-days and to select up to six new start studies and up to six new start construction projects (for reference, this is down from 10 studies and 10 construction projects in FY16). The work plan process has been in place since FY11 and each and every year the Administration has provided the full number of new starts allowed by Congress (insert daunting music here). That’s right, each and every year except for the present. The FY17 work plan is shy by five new start study designations meaning that the Administration elected to name just 1/6 of the available slots. This is not the case for the new start construction category where all six slots were assigned and it begs the question, what does this mean for the future of the Corps program? Is this simply a new Administration hitting the pause button so that they can take a full assessment of the Corps portfolio? Or is this a signal that the Administration is taking the initial step to transform the mission of the Corps into just an operation and maintenance agency by stopping new studies from entering the pipeline? Certainly the Administration’s implementation of the work plan is not what Congress intended and Congress needs to hear from you. If you’re the non-federal sponsor looking to get a project into the Corps study process or break ground on construction, now is a good time to sound the alarm with your congressional delegation.