For Appropriators, Olmsted Project Is No Anomaly

Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:43am

The same provision that ignited a backlash this month against the Senate’s top Republican for a so-called “Kentucky kickback” went unnoticed in July, when lawmakers had the opportunity to freely offer amendments to a regular spending bill.

An identical sentence appears in both the fiscal 2014 continuing resolution (PL 113-46) and the House’s Energy-Water appropriations bill (HR 2609), but the provision drew very different amounts of attention.

Both measures increase in authorization to $2.92 billion from $775 million for the troubled Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River near Illinois and Kentucky, a major refurbishment of an important piece of waterway infrastructure that has been in the works for decades.

The House had votes on about three dozen amendments on July 9 and July 10 to the spending bill, which was brought to the floor without restrictions on amendments. None of these votes were directed at blocking the increase in authorization for the Olmsted project, and the Congressional Record shows no mention of the Olmsted project on the House floor for the days when the spending bill was considered.

Tucking the Olmsted provision in the 14-page CR sparked far more interest than there had been for the infrastructure plan in the 66-page spending bill. Tea-party-favored groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund portrayed this as a sweetheart deal for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who helped put together the package to end the 16-day government shutdown and who also faces a primary challenge.

Senate appropriators included the same Olmsted provision in their fiscal 2014 bill.

Had Congress been able to clear a stand-alone Energy-Water appropriations bill, the issue may have been little noted outside of watchdog groups. The nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, for instance, said it was not swayed by arguments that the federal government could have lost $70 million to $140 million in canceled contracts without the increased authorization for Olmsted in the CR. The group said the project is “more than 300 percent over budget.”

The Obama administration’s cost of this project has increased by $5 million, to $3.14 billion, since the fiscal 2013 budget request, according to the Senate Energy-Water report (S 113-47). “Abandoning the Olmsted project is not a viable option,” the report said, noting replacement costs could “easily top $3 billion in addition to the $1.7 billion already spent on the project.”