When I came to work in the United States Senate, 40 years ago this January, I quickly learned that there are two kinds of senators —workhorses and show horses. I dare say few, if any, high school students could name all 100. Indeed, most teachers would be impressed if their high schoolers could name the two senators from their own state.
Over the years, I have watched the senators who never met a microphone they didn't try to get in front of. And I have watched the senators who work quietly on matters vital to the nation but who get very little coverage for doing so.
One of the workhorse senators is James M. Inhofe, R-Okla. His is hardly a household name outside his own state, where he wins by landslide margins. In the Senate he doggedly works on various pieces of non-sexy legislation. Often his work pertains to national defense.
I have seen him go toe-to-toe with both the Clinton and Bush administrations. And he won. I have seen him clash with the congressional leadership of his own party. For example, he got the rules changed so that congressmen who sign a discharge petition (to force a bill to the floor against the wishes of the leadership) must do so in broad daylight. The rules previously permitted them to hide behind procedure.
Having been trained by two workhorse senators, I appreciate them a lot more than those who will say anything to get on television. The reason I mention Jim Inhofe is because of the 100 senators I would put him as the top workhorse senator.
He works on many projects at once. He pursues them until they are complete. Do not get me wrong, he is good on television. Since the advent of the Fox News Channel, he now has begun to get some exposure, and he does well.
Primarily, however, he does what he is now doing — working on an infrastructure bill that has almost no national following. He is shepherding something called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
He and I always tell our fellow conservatives that the two matters on which the federal government is authorized to spend money are defense and infrastructure. Two summers ago, Inhofe secured passage of the transportation bill, which took incredible skill on his part.
Yes, it has a few questionable items, but by and large that bill was an extraordinary piece of work. I praised him for it at the time and I do so again today, despite all the criticism. We both believe that spending outside of defense and infrastructure is stretching the Constitution to a point beyond recognition.
Back to this legislation, the bill Inhofe is now working on authorizes the Army Corp of Engineers to do flood control, navigation and environmental restoration projects. For example, the average transportation cost savings of users of the inland waterway system is $10.76 per ton hauled, or $7 billion annually over rail, highways and air transportation.
Flood control, as demonstrated during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is a critical service provided by the Army Corps of Engineers. Money was appropriated to fix those infamous levies in New Orleans, but local politicians always diverted the money to their own projects and now we are all paying the price.
Nevertheless, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, flood control structures on average prevent $22 billion in flood damage per year. That is a savings of $6 for every $1 spent.
Clearly, projects that promote economic growth through good movements or prevent damage due to flooding are not pork. But this is not always so. Recognizing that not all proposed flood control or navigation projects are necessary, the Senate has established firm criteria for evaluating project requests.
First, projects have to have a chief report, which means that the Corps of Engineers has determined that the project is technically feasible, environmentally sound and economically justified.
Second, Inhofe and his committee attempt to oppose any environmental infrastructure project that is outside the scope of the main mission. You can imagine that there are senators on Inhofe's committee who do bring pork to the table. Inhofe won't budge on that point.
Finally, Inhofe's Environment and Public Works Committee opposes cost waivers, thus following the policy established in the WRDA bill of 1986, which established cost-sharing requirements. In order for a project to be built, local communities must be willing to pay some cost of the project.
The same is true in the transportation bill, only in that measure there is a huge disparity between highways and transit. With highways the federal government pays 80 percent to 90 percent of the project. With transit — say, a light-rail line in Denver — the federal government will only pay on average around 50 percent.
Just as in the transportation bill (known around here as SAFETEA-LU), in which the senator got his committee to agree that projects eligible for Highway Trust Fund dollars be on the state's transportation, the Senate WRDA bill established and stayed with strict criteria for WRDA projects in an attempt to avoid funding any project that is not justified.
Work on this measure has been long and hard. Inhofe wants to get the final bill passed in these waning days of the 109th Congress. But for senators like Inhofe (and there are not many — eight or nine at best), who are willing to do the non-exciting, non-sexy work, the real business of the Senate would not go on. The WRDA bill is important, and we can be thankful that Sen. Inhofe is behind it, inching it along to enactment.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.