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Money For Dam Project In Shutdown Deal Riles Conservatives

The Olmsted Locks and Dam project is under construction on the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The Olmsted Locks and Dam project is under construction on the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky.

This week's congressional compromise to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling had a few other provisions as well.

One of them allows additional spending on a lock and dam project on the Ohio River between Kentucky and Illinois.

The amount is $2.1 billion — a rounding error compared with the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling. But it's still enough to rile budget watchdogs, as well as hard-line conservatives who call it pork-barrel spending by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been working on the new lock and dam on the Ohio River since 1988. It's located between the towns of Olmsted and Monkeys Eyebrow, Ky., a few miles up from where the Ohio meets the Mississippi.

It's just downstream from the old set of locks and dams, which date to the 1920s. Some of the machinery operating the locks still needs to be raised and lowered by hand — "by these crews of men and women that are out on an old steamboat," says James Bruggers, who covers energy and the environment for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"These two old locks and dams that are just upriver from the Olmsted project are a really great example of our nation's crumbling infrastructure," Bruggers says. "They're already sort of a choke point for this commercial barge traffic."

The barges carry coal, grain and other cargo — about 90 million tons per year.

This is one of the biggest construction jobs going right now in the United States, with massive blocks of concrete being lowered into the river.

One of the nearby cities is Metropolis, Ill. Bruggers says it's "sort of appropriate" because the project has "a Superman theme."

"When you go visit the site, you actually see a 14-story-tall crane," he says.

Like a lot of megasize construction projects, Olmsted's cost has gone up. In fact, it's gone up 300 percent since work started.

And it seems only natural that one of Kentucky's senators, the leader of all Senate Republicans, would want to keep the project going, right?

But McConnell says he didn't put the funding provision into this week's spending bill. Two senators on the appropriations committee — Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, and Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — say they did it.

Still, Steve Ellis at the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the legislation is only 35 pages long. McConnell had to have known the Olmsted money was in there.

And Ellis says he had to have decided to leave it in.

"It doesn't take a media professional to recognize that the optics of this look really bad," he says.

More substantively, Ellis says this was the wrong time and place to commit the money, especially for such a troubled project.

"The thing is, there are tons, I mean, scores and scores of projects and programs," he says. "Why this particular project was plucked out of, you know, the hundreds that are available is beyond me."

And conservative groups are blasting McConnell over what's been dubbed the "Kentucky Kickback."

The Tea Party Victory Fund has a fundraising email calling McConnell a "fake conservative" and the provision "the cost of selling out the conservative movement."

The Senate Conservatives Fund issued a statement saying that "this is what's wrong with Washington and it's what wrong with Mitch McConnell."

The Senate Conservatives Fund is already on the air in Kentucky, backing McConnell's primary opponent, Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin.

McConnell has long supported the Olmsted project. The new money was requested by the Obama administration, and McConnell told Politico that it actually saves money — $160 million — by preventing a gap in spending.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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