Rethinking Paradigms

Cutting the Army Corps of Engineers

by Chris Edwards, CATO

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a federal agency that constructs and maintains a wide range of infrastructure for military and civilian purposes.1 This essay concerns the civilian part of the agency, which employs about 23,000 people and will spend about $9.2 billion in fiscal 2012.2

The civilian part of the Corps—called “civil works”—builds and operates locks, channels, and other navigation infrastructure on river systems. It also builds flood control structures, dredges seaports, manages thousands of recreation sites, and owns and operates hydroelectric power plants across the country.

While the Army Corps has built some impressive infrastructure, many of its projects have been economically or environmentally dubious. The agency’s activities have often subsidized private interests at the expense of federal taxpayers. Furthermore, the Corps has a history of distorting its cost-benefit analyses in order to justify its projects.

The civilian side of the Corps grew out of the engineering expertise gained by the agency’s military activities early in the nation’s history. In mid-19th century, Congress began adding civilian missions to the Corps in response to political demands and various natural disasters. Today we are left with an agency involved in far flung activities such as beach replenishment, upgrades to city water systems, agriculture irrigation, clean-up of hazardous waste sites, and efforts to revive the Florida Everglades.

The Corps has been greatly mismanaged over the decades, with problems ranging from frequent cost overruns on projects to the major engineering failures that contributed to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the dominance of special-interest politics on the agency’s activities has resulted in it supporting many wasteful projects.

Fortunately, most of the Corps’ activities do not need to be carried out by the federal government. Some of its activities—such as flood control and the management of recreational areas—should be turned over to state and local governments. Other activities—such as seaport dredging and hydropower generation—should be turned over to the private sector. This essay focuses on cutting the Corps’ spending activities, and does not address the calls for reforming the agency’s regulatory functions.3

The following sections look at the history of the Army Corps, the pork-barrel nature of its spending, its legacy of mismanagement, and its role in Hurricane Katrina. The essay concludes that the bulk of the agency’s civilian activities and assets should be privatized or transferred to state and local governments. The remaining activities of the Corps that are truly federal in nature should be transferred to the Department of the Interior. The civilian side of the Army Corps should be closed down.

Read the rest here.