Garret Graves: Trump plan to redirect Corps money to border wall wouldn’t cut Louisiana projects
Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation say planned flood and hurricane risk reduction projects in the state would not be in jeopardy under a White House proposal to divert money and other resources from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a 315-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Trump administration brought forward the proposal Thursday (Jan. 10) as their stalemate with Congress over border wall funding continued and the resulting partial government shutdown headed toward a fourth week. President Donald Trump has said he would declare border security a national emergency if lawmakers won’t provide $5.7 billion to construct the wall. He has directed officials to find the money to complete the task if Congress won’t. Democrats have resisted providing the amount Trump wants for the wall, while the president refuses to end a shutdown in which some 800,000 federal government workers have been furloughed or forced to work without pay.
NBC News, The Washington Post and other news outlets reported Thursday that Defense Department officials reviewed a plan with the president that would take money and manpower from Corps of Engineers projects that have been approved but not yet funded. They include disaster recovery work in Puerto Rico, where rebuilding continues after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and flood protection and prevention along rivers in California.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said via text message Friday that major Louisiana projects, such as the Comite River Division Canal near Baton Rouge and the Westshore Lake Pontchartrain hurricane risk reduction system, “are not on the chopping block.”
“We have been in constant communication with the Corps, OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and White House,” Graves said. “Otherwise, (it) would make a really awkward trip for POTUS on Monday.”
Graves was referencing Trump’s scheduled appearance at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference in New Orleans on Monday.
Matt Wolking, a spokesman for Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said in an email that funding for corps work in Louisiana, including the Comite and Westshore projects, “has already been set aside.” Indications are that the money for the border wall would come from “unobligated Army Corps funds,” Wolking added.
Cassidy wrote Friday afternoon on Twitter that he was seeking “further clarification” from the White House.
Funds for dredging along the Mississippi River are traditionally vulnerable to the whims of budget debates, with shipping interests annually pushing for additional resources to ensure waterways are navigable for deep draft ships. Questions to the corps about whether the White House emergency plan to pay for a border wall could impact money for local dredging were forwarded to Army headquarters in Washington.
Sean Duffy leads the Big River Coalition, an umbrella group of port and business organizations along the Mississippi. He said he hasn’t heard much specific about diverting dredging money for Trump’s border wall, but doing so would clearly threaten work coalition members have deemed a priority.
The current federal budget includes $147 million for dredging, jetty repair and rock work on the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge south to the Gulf of Mexico. Duffy singled out a dredging project at Southwest Pass as most pressing.
“We’re short of funding right now. Taking funding will not help matters,” Duffy said. “... We need at least another $30 million just for dredging.”
A week ago, a deep-draft vessel was grounded on the Lower Mississippi. Heavy fog at the time contributed to a backup of 50 ships trying to enter or leave the river.
Local corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said in an email that dredging operations have been increased in response to last week’s grounding. There are four dredges working in the area with plans to extend the contract of one of them. Fog back in late December and early January prevented corps dredging and surveying work, he said.
“We are working to address the shoaling from time lost during the fog as well as extending the operations to try and get ahead of the increased sediment heading our way,” Boyett said.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Thursday night via email that he had not received word from the White House that any project in Louisiana was in danger of losing funding.
Lauren Fine, a spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said Scalise agreed with President Trump that Congress needs to solve “the crisis at the border wall.”
Fine did not address whether any Army Corps work in Louisiana could have its funding redirected under a possible emergency declaration from the president.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, had not responded to a request for comment.
Watching the border wall standoff unfold is the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The guidance and approval of the Corps of Engineers is key to much of the bolstering and rebuilding work it oversees. Chip Kline, interim CPRA chairman, said in an email that he doesn’t see the wisdom of using what he considers critical infrastructure projects as leverage in a political showdown.
“If the goal of the President’s standoff at the border is to improve the safety of Americans, then it makes no sense to penalize already approved wildfire and flood projects that will make Americans safer and more resilient. This proposal should be a nonstarter," said Kline, who is also Gov. John Bel Edwards' interim adviser on coastal restoration.
Should Trump follow through with an emergency declaration, Democrats are expected to bring lawsuits challenging his executive powers. Fine said Scalise believes the president has such authority “under limited circumstances,” although she did not specify whether border security was one of those situations.