Keep waterways, government open

The far-right groups that wrongly accused Sen. Mitch McConnell of helping himself to some hidden home-state pork, via an Ohio River lock and dam project, did provide food for thought, even if it isn't the lesson they intended.

If these anti-tax, anti-government zealots succeed in demonizing public spending on basic infrastructure, the economy will go down the tubes and take this country with it.

The neglect of the locks and dams that move billions of dollars of commerce on the nation's rivers is already an alarming example, notwithstanding approval by the U.S. House Wednesday of a water resources authorization bill that was four years overdue.

The barge industry has been begging Congress for years to raise the 20 cents-a-gallon fuel tax that it pays to maintain locks and dams by six to nine pennies. The tax on the industry amounts to a user fee; the federal government matches it, and the money goes into a trust fund that falls far short of meeting needs.

Some locks and dams, nearing 100 years old, are made of wood and require hand-cranking. If one shuts down, it would bottle up river traffic, at a huge cost in economic activity and jobs.

But the waterways legislation finally approved by the House again failed to enact the tax increase for which those who would pay it have been begging.

The barge industry recognizes what lawmakers who have signed no-tax pledges miss: Failure to invest in critical infrastructure now will exact a far heavier price in the future and strip the U.S. of long-held competitive advantages.

The same goes for government funding of research and education, neither of which can yield the economic breakthroughs they have in the past on their current starvation budgets, especially when our international competitors are investing heavily in these areas.

The water bill, which the House should quickly reconcile with the Senate version, would help clear up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boondoggle at the Olmsted Locks and Dam, a project that Congress authorized in 1988 at a projected price of $775 million.

We have to admit, those who want to flog government have a handy weapon in Olmsted. The cost has escalated to $1.4 billion and rising, in part because the Corps used an untried building technique.

The project, which is between Kentucky and Illinois near the Ohio's confluence with the Mississippi, has been sucking up every available penny for upgrading other locks and dams through which everything from grain to manufacturing parts move.

Once the legislation is finalized, the federal government would shoulder the full cost of the Olmsted project, which seems only fair.

An Olmsted provision also was included in the bill, negotiated by Senate Republican leader McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid, that ended the government shutdown and avoided default. McConnell's detractors dubbed it the "Kentucky Kickback" even though the lock is in Illinois (the alliteration wouldn't work) and appropriated no new money, merely allowed the project to continue upon reaching its current authorization level of $1.4 billion.

Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Dianne Feinstein of California said they were responsible for the Olmsted reauthorization, which was no secret and had been approved in an earlier Senate bill.

The Corps estimated that shutting down the project and waiting for it to be reauthorized would have cost $40 million; a Senate committee said $160 million.

Either way, taxpayers are better off because of a decision denounced by so-called small-government conservatives.

Too bad wiser heads couldn't have prevailed and avoided the $24 billion in lost gross national product extracted by the same small-government conservatives' shutdown of the U.S. government.

Sooner or later, it will become obvious that Congress must return to raising enough money through taxes to keep the locks and dams open and to keep this country strong and competitive.

Let's just hope that realization does not dawn too late.