WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint introduced sweeping legislation Monday to overhaul how the federal government chooses which harbor, bridge and water projects to fund by setting up an independent review panel.
DeMint’s bill would establish a Water Resources Commission modeled on the base-closure panel Congress set up in 1988 to decide which military facilities would be shuttered around the country.
The DeMint measure would also give states more power in funding Army Corps of Engineers projects by returning federal harbor-maintenance taxes to them in the form of block grants.
DeMint, a Greenville Republican, said a backlog of 1,000 old projects – many of dubious merit but funded through a “favor factory” of congressionally directed earmarks -- is blocking urgently needed projects such as deepening the Charleston port.
“We can fund water-resource projects of national priority, stop wasteful earmarks and give states the flexibility they need to address critical needs at our country’s busiest ports,” he said.
While DeMint pushed his reform bill in Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Tim Scott pled with the civilian head of the Corps of Engineers to help fund a study for deepening the port of Charleston.
Graham, Scott and top officials with the S.C. State Ports Authority hosted Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, on a tour of the Charleston harbor.
“We will lose jobs in South Carolina if we don’t deepen the harbor,” Graham said after the tour. “Failure to deepen Charleston harbor would be an economic disaster for South Carolina.”
Graham again criticized President Barack Obama for failing to include $400,000 in his 2012 fiscal year budget plan to help fund a study on dredging the harbor to 50 feet to accommodate giant cargo ships that will start arriving at Atlantic ports in 2014 when the Panama Canal widening is completed.
Obama administration officials say the Charleston port study wasn’t funded because the state’s congressional delegation wasn’t united in seeking the funds. DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson didn’t sign a December letter asking for the money.
“We’re in no-man’s land,” Graham said.
While Graham is the lead cosponsor of DeMint’s bill to implement long-term changes in choosing and funding Corps of Engineers projects, the Seneca Republican is pursuing emergency steps for the Charleston port.
Graham said he’s crafting language, which he’ll ask the delegation to approve, to be included in one of measures moving through Congress to fund the federal government for the rest of the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
Without specifically citing the Charleston harbor, Graham’s provision would authorize the Corps of Engineers to proceed with port deepening studies.
The provision wouldn’t allocate any funds, but Graham said Corps of Engineers officials have told him they would tap $50,000 to $100,000 in previously allocated money for Charleston to get the port-deepening study started.
Gene Pawlik, a Corps of Engineers spokesman in Washington, declined to comment on Graham’s pending legislative language or DeMint’s comprehensive bill.
“When it comes to pending or proposed legislation, we never comment on that,” he said.
Scott, a former Charleston County Council chairman in his first year in Congress, also urged Darcy to find money for his hometown project.
“When you look at the economic advantages that the Charleston port has, it has merit and should be dredged,” Scott, a North Charleston Republican, said.
Glenn Jeffries, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers’ district office in Charleston, said Darcy would take into account the lawmakers’ views.
“Senator Graham invited her to Charleston to meet with him and some other port stakeholders,” Jeffries said. “She was there as a guest of the senator, listening and learning about the harbor.
Also on the tour were Bill Stern, board chairman of the S.C. State Ports Authority, and James Newsome, the agency’s CEO. Charleston harbor pilots Whit Smith and John Cameron took the group onto the water on a harbor boat.
Taking broader aim at the problem, DeMint advanced a bill to end the decades-old system in which lawmakers steer federal money to Corps of Engineers projects in their states and districts regardless of the projects’ broader merits or need.
The current freeze on spending earmarks, which DeMint helped compel Congress and President Barack Obama to accept, has left dozens of projects in limbo across the country – starting with the mandated study on deepening the Charleston port.
“The era of earmarks is over,” DeMint said. “Congress must pass urgently needed reforms to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on national priorities – or not spent at all. For too long, Congress has relied on a corrupting system that funded projected based on politics instead of merit.”
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington advocacy group, said DeMint’s measure is on the right track.
“Spending has to be prioritized, and the deadwood cast aside,” he said. “The work done by the Corps (of Engineers) is too important to leave to parochial politics. Establishing a prioritization system along the lines Senator DeMint has envisioned will be critical.”