Government Lags as Hurricane Season Starts

Politics block private sector from helping ravaged areas

Hurricane season is once again upon us and the forecasts are dire. The experts predict an “above-normal hurricane season” with four to six major hurricanes on top of several other named storms and “weaker” hurricanes, if you can call them that. While there is a great deal of uncertainty in the forecasts, tragedy may once again loom around the corner should another massive hurricane or combination of hurricanes hit the ravaged Gulf Coast.

Despite stoic rebuilding efforts to rehab and rebuild vital infrastructure up and down the Gulf Coast much work remains. This year could bring us a repeat of the all too familiar scenes of water spilling over levees and pouring into New Orleans communities because the simple truth is that the levee system in New Orleans may not survive another major hurricane.

Sadly we’re not doing all we can to improve the levees and safeguard the public. Congress has shielded the Army Corps of Engineers from competition from the private sector, who can often provide services better, faster, and cheaper. In doing so, we have left valuable resources on the table. Furthermore, Congress has simultaneously expanded the Corps’ role into non-traditional functions, further diluting their mission and shifting resources and agency focus to less critical areas.

For more than 30 years the federal government has used competition to determine the most efficient and effective means to deliver services. Upon entering office, President Bush initiated the largest expansion of this policy in history. Despite recent experience that demonstrates cost savings upwards of 28 percent, often accompanied with quality and performance improvements, Congress has fought to restrict the administration’s ability use this powerful policy tool.

Indeed, the most recent House Energy and Water Development appropriations bill includes restricting language, limiting funds that can be used on competitive sourcing studies. And they’ve done this despite recent federal experience that shows that for every single dollar invested in a competitive sourcing study, the federal government saves a whopping $27. These are savings that could be redirected to complete additional work on the fragile levee system in New Orleans. Instead, Congress chooses to protect federal employees and leave necessary work uncompleted. In times of need, we need to muster all our resources, not put politics over public safety.

In addition, the Office of Management and Budget reports that competitions using best-value contracts have demonstrated the best results for the taxpayer. Best-value enables other considerations, including speedy delivery or quality, into the decision making process. No one can argue that the levees needed to be repaired and rehabbed yesterday and done so in a high-quality manner. Yet again, the Corps is prevented from using this valuable tool to achieve its mission.

In fact, Congressmen Lane Evans (D-IL) and Ray LaHood (R-IL) want to go even further. They have introduced legislation that would redefine various functions of the Corps as “inherently governmental” thereby preventing any competition from the private sector. In essence, the bill would establish another federal monopoly and prevent the private sector from providing those services in partnership or conjunction with government employees.

Congressional earmarks are also to blame. While not as drastic as this year’s highway bill the Corps has seen an increasing number of earmarks new projects each year. The earmarks continually take up larger and larger pieces of their budget. What’s troubling is many of these projects fall outside the traditional scope of the Corps. Projects have included building sewage treatment plats, revitalizing local waterfronts, and maintaining waterways for local recreation.

Indeed, according to the Corps, in 2002, more than three-quarters of the funding for earmarked projects fell outside long-established Corps policies for construction programs. And more than $5 billion in funds were diverted into these pet projects.

Maybe it is time to rethink how the Corps’ operates?

Rather than shield them from competition and expand their mission, Congress should figure out how to get the Corps out of various lines of business-like managing more than 4,300 recreation areas, or operating 75 hydropower generation facilities. Even aiding commercial navigation can be handled by the private sector-with enhanced technology and GPS systems to boot, is there a fundamental role for the Corps?

Congress should refocus the Corps on their central mission: “to protect citizens and their property from flood and storm damage” and get them out of the others. Furthermore, competition and the private sector should be fully embraced. Until the Corps achieves better agency focus and uses the private sector, hurricane season will continue to threaten property and life at levels it need not to.

Geoffrey Segal is director of government reform at Reason Foundation. An archive of Segal’s work is available here and Reason’s privatization research and commentary is here.