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Clinton, Bush slashed spending on levees

WASHINGTON – While the Bush administration is sure to get most of the heat for cuts in proposed expenditures to maintain and upgrade New Orleans flood control system, the Clinton administration repeatedly cut congressional allocations for the projects and the recommendations on spending by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Most of the attention to date has focused on the fact that last year the Army Corps of Engineers sought $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans, while the White House slashed the request to about $40 million. Congress finally approved $42.2 million, less than half of the agency’s request.

Some have been quick to point out the same Congress and Bush administration agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-laden highway bill that included more than 6,000 pet projects for lawmakers, as well as allocations for dust control on Arkansas roads, a warehouse on the Erie Canal and a $231 million bridge to a small, uninhabited Alaskan island.

However, 10 years ago, the Clinton administration cut 98 flood control projects, including one in New Orleans, saying such efforts should be local projects, not national.

Army Corps of Engineers officials freely conceded in 1995 the cuts might be penny-wise and pound-foolish. But they said they were forced to eliminate some services the corps has historically provided to taxpayers to meet the administration’s budget-cutting goals.

A $120 million hurricane project, approved and financed annually from 1965 was killed by the Clinton administration after being approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was designed to protect more than 140,000 West Bank residents east of the Harvey Canal.

On June 9, John Zirschky, the acting assistant secretary of the Army and the official who refused to forward the report to Congress, sent a memo to the corps, saying the recommendation for the project “is not consistent with the policies and budget priorities reflected in the President’s Fiscal Year 1996 budget. Accordingly, I will not forward the report to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance.”

The following year, Congress approved more for flood-control projects than was recommended by the Clinton administration. Likewise, in 1999, Congress and the Clinton administration agreed to spend only $47 million on New Orleans area hurricane flood control projects – half of what local officials had requested.

Again, in 2000, Congress approved a $23.6 billion measure for water and energy programs, with sizable increases for several New Orleans area flood-control projects.

Clinton, however, promised to veto the annual appropriation for the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers, not because it was $890 million larger than he proposed, but because it did not include a plan to alter the levels of the Missouri River to protect endangered fish and birds.