To the Senate and House of Representatives:
I have approved the bill (H. R. 20686) entitled "An act making appropriations for the construction, repair, and preservation of certain public works on rivers and harbors, and for other purposes," and, while I have signed the bill, I venture to submit a memorandum of explanation and comment.
The bill is an important one and contains many excellent features. It provides for the canalization of the Ohio River, to be prosecuted at a rate which will insure its completion within twelve years; the improvement of the Mississippi River between Cairo and the Gulf of Mexico, to be completed within twenty years; of the Mississippi River between the mouth of the Missouri and the mouth of the Ohio River, to be completed within twelve years; of the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and the mouth of the Missouri River, to be completed within twelve years; of the Hudson River for the purpose of facilitating the use of the barge canal in the vicinity of Troy, N. Y.; of the Savannah River from Augusta to the sea, with a view to its completion within four years; of a 35-foot channel in the Delaware River from Philadelphia to the sea; of a 35-foot channel to Norfolk, Va.; of a 27-foot channel to Mobile, Ala.; of a 30-foot channel to Jacksonville, Fla.; of a 30-foot channel to Oakland, Cal. It also provides for greatly enlarged harbor facilities at certain important lake ports, including Ashtabula and Lorain, and enlarged facilities for the important commerce of the Detroit River. Indeed, it may be said that a great majority of the projects named in the bill are meritorious, and that money expended in their completion will not be wasted.
The chief defect in the bill is the large number of projects appropriated for and the uneconomical method of carrying on these projects by the appropriation of sums small in comparison to the amounts required to effect completion.
The figures convincingly establish the fact that this bill makes inadequate provision for too many projects. The total of the bill, $52,000,000, is not unduly large, but the policy of small appropriations with a great many different enterprises without provision for their completion is unwise. It tends to waste, because thus constructed the projects are likely to cost more than if they were left to contractors who were authorized to complete the whole work within a reasonably short time. The appropriation of a small sum lessens the sense of responsibility of those who are to adopt the project and who do not therefore give to their decision the care that they would give if the appropriation or contract involved the full amount needed for completion. Moreover, the appropriation of a comparatively small sum for a doubtful enterprise is thereafter used by its advocates to force further provision for it from Congress on the ground that the investment made is a conclusive recognition of the wisdom of the project, and its continuance becomes a necessity to save the money already spent. This has been called a "piecemeal" policy. It is proposed to remedy this defect by an annual river and harbor bill, but that hardly avoids the objections above cited, for such yearly appropriations are apt to be affected by the state of the Treasury and political exigency. If enterprises are to be useful as encouraging means of transportation, they ought to be finished within a reasonable time. The delays in completing them postpone their usefulness and increase their cost. The proper policy, it seems to me, is to determine from the many projects proposed and recommended what are the most important, and then to proceed to complete them with due dispatch, and then to take up others and do the same thing with them.
There has been frequent discussion of late years as to the proper course to be pursued in the development of our inland waterways, and I think the general sentiment has been that we should have a comprehensive system agreed upon by some competent body of experts who should pass upon the relative merits of the various projects and recommend the order in which they should be begun and completed.
Under the present system every project is submitted to army engineers, who pass upon the question whether it ought to be adopted, but that have no power to pass upon the relative importance of the many different projects they approve or to suggest the most economical and businesslike order for their completion.
General Marshall, while Chief Engineer, at my request furnished me a memorandum in respect to the bill then pending in the Senate, in which he analyzed the criticisms made in the discussion of it in Congress. He considers the bill to be quite as good as any of its predecessors, but points out the defects I have mentioned above, and also suggests that the old projects provided for in the bill include some which were never recommended by the engineers and some which, though once recommended, would not be now recommended because of a change of condition.
Congress should refer the old projects to boards of army engineers for further consideration and recommendation. This would enable us to know what of the old works ought to be abandoned. General Marshall's plain intimation is that a number of old projects call for action of this kind.
I have given to the consideration of this bill the full ten days since its submission to me, and some time before that. The objections are to the system, for it may be conceded that the framers of the bill have made as good a bill as they could under the "piecemeal" policy. I once reached the conclusion that it was my duty to interpose a veto in order, if possible, to secure a change in the method of framing these bills. Subsequent consideration has altered my view as to my duty.
It is now three years since a river and harbor bill was passed. The projects under way are in urgent need of further appropriation for maintenance and continuance, and there is great and justified pressure for many of the new projects provided for by the bill. It has been made clear to me that the failure of the bill thus late in the session would seriously embarrass the constructing engineers. I do not think, therefore, the defects of the bill which I have pointed out will justify the postponement of all this important work; but I do think that in the preparation of the proposed future yearly bills Congress should adopt the reforms above suggested, and that a failure to do so would justify withholding executive approval, even though a river and harbor bill fail.
WILLIAM H. TAFT
William Howard Taft, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/207484