House and Senate conferees ushering the otherwise-flawed Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) conference report through to final passage are touting its lack of earmarks as a big accomplishment. But because the Army Corps of Engineers is involved in a far-flung range of parochial activities, the new project authorization process set up in the bill may result in earmarks by other means.

WRRDA authorizes the Corps to carry out construction on 34 existing projects—each of which the Corps has studied for feasibility and given its stamp of approval. Thus, lawmakers can say the bill contains no congressional earmarks, because these projects are not newly conceived requests from Congress but rather were already under consideration by the Corps.

For new projects going forward, WRRDA states that the Corps must solicit and consider project requests from non-federal entities (think local communities), putting those that meet certain qualifications into an annual report to Congress. Congress would then decide which ones it will authorize the Corps to study for feasibility and ultimately to construct.

A few potential problems may arise with this process. First, the Corps and Congress may be overwhelmed by the submissions from non-federal entities seeking federal funding for their projects. As the Corps already suffers from a massive backlog of authorized projects, and Congress has failed to give it priorities, inundating the Corps with these new requests may set it back even more. Second, Congress would likely approve most—if not all—of these projects. Call it logrolling en masse of Corps-sanctioned activities.

What may result, then, is a process that permits locally driven project requests that would otherwise be considered congressional earmarks, prodded on by a construction-biased Corps that lacks priorities, capped off with a Congress all too obliged to see the projects funded. Parochialism is parochialism, no matter who’s doing it.

It remains to be seen how things will play out, but it is likely that any current effort to reduce the Corps’s backlog or reform the way it does business will only be undermined. All of which makes for a much stronger case for narrowing the Corps’s mission and devolving or privatizing many of its current activities—activities that are state or local in nature, not priorities of a cash-strapped, overly bureaucratic federal government.