In Pork We Trust

Coleman and Dayton partner up to bring home the bacon

When Congress reconvenes in the new year, the energy bill will not be the only major spending initiative set to test senators' commitment to ideology against their love of pork--and, in the case of Minnesota senators, their love of agribusiness giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Consider the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' pending proposal to spend as much as $2.3 billion on expanding and rebuilding the navigation locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

To date, Dayton has yet to take a formal stance on the project. Coleman, as well as several other members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, has already formally declared his support for "lock modernization." According to the Corps--and their politically powerful allies in agribusiness and the barge industry--the expansion is necessary to reduce shipping delays on the river and accommodate a projected increase in barge traffic.

If this sounds familiar, it's because the Corps came out with a very similar study justifying the project four years ago, only to suffer a colossal embarrassment when the agency's own economist, Donald Sweeney, blew the whistle on the Corps for cooking their books. Sweeney was removed from his position after concluding there was insufficient economic justification for lock expansion. After a major Pentagon investigation, Sweeney was vindicated and given whistleblower protection, while three top Corps brass were reprimanded for their roles in the fiasco.

Ryan Greis

So what does Sweeney make of the Corps's latest navigation study?

"In my opinion, it's absolutely worse," Sweeney asserts. "It's a decided step backwards." He points out that one of the chief forecasting tools used in the study--called a tow cost model--should not have been employed because it fails to account for what economists refer to as market elasticity. "The tow cost model is simply biased and will lead to large overestimates of the benefits. The two other models [employed in the study] use hypothetical numbers which are not derived from any analysis of real-world shipping patterns."

Sweeney, who is on leave from the Corps and no longer speaks for the agency, notes striking similarities in the flawed economic justification for the lock expansion project and the outright boondoggles of the energy bill. And he points out an intriguing irony: If the energy bill is passed in current form, much of the corn production that is supposed to drive up barge traffic on the river will instead be diverted by rail and truck to regional ethanol production facilities.

In other words, it will likely be a case of one pork project undermining another.

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