Fighting for Bites of the Pie

In the glory days of pork-barrel legislation in Congress, members from the South and the West were particularly adept at bringing home water projects to benefit their areas. The Southern and Western states had learned that seniority counts in such things. They would keep their senators and representatives in Congress term after term so that they built up enough seniority to become chairmen of the right committees and subcommittees.

Times have changed--but not enough, as a crucial vote in the House indicated last week.

Seniority no longer carries the influence that it once did, so projects require more justification than the wave of a hand or a wink from the right congressman or senator. There no longer is enough money to go around, so regions have to battle each other for bites of the shrinking pork pie. And the Administration and Congress have agreed, appropriately, that if a state or locality wants a project badly enough, it should be willing to put up part of the cost. Legislation now on the House floor would require a 25% or 30% cost-sharing, except . . . .

The exception consists of six states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. The House rejected on a vote of 296 to 124 an amendment that would have subjected these states to the same cost-sharing formula applied to the other 44. The exemption had been inserted into the Corps of Engineers project authorization bill by Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Southerners argued that the lower Mississippi River Valley drains a huge area of the nation and that flood control in the basin therefore is a national problem and everyone should pay. Whitten's provision was worded to say that the cost-sharing formula did not apply to projects already authorized or under construction--a grandfather clause, as it's called. This would apply to the multi-unit, basinwide Mississippi River and Tributaries Project authorized in 1928.

Northern congressmen argued that it would be appropriate to exempt the main stem of the Mississippi, but not every stream that conceivably could trace its ultimate flow to the Mississippi. But Whitten prevailed.

Congress should correct this inequity before the Corps of Engineers authorization bill reaches final passage. There is still too much squeal in one region of the pig.

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