U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann has yet to serve a full-term representing Tennessee's 3d District in Congress, but he has learned something important in Washington. He's mastered the political art of making promises to please constituents and win votes without providing any indication of how he will fulfill those pledges. The needed repair of the Chickamauga lock on the Tennessee River is a perfect case in point.
Fleischmann agrees the current TVA lock, now 72 years old, is deteriorating, that it requires immediate repairs, and that replacement is a structural necessity to maintain river traffic — and thus is an economic necessity for East Tennessee. But in the face of overwhelming evidence about the lock's death-bed condition, he does little else than talk about it.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Corps of Engineers' spokesman confirms that the agency believes it won't be long before the existing lock is in danger of collapse. If that were to occur, the cost to local, regional and national economies would be immense.
Fleischmann's response is predictable. He promises, as he's done in the past, to get the money needed for repairs and replacement. But he remains excessively vague about how and where he can secure the funds, even as he simultaneously hinders the prospect of funding by his extreme partisanship.
Fleischmann apparently has no real plan of his own. He relies instead on one put forward by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. No one is sure if Alexander's proposal to change the Inland Waterways Trust Fund formula will be approved, or if it is, when the additional funds needed for a new lock might be available. That doesn't seem to perturb Fleischmann. He continues to tap-dance round the question of timing, never mind that every month of delay means additional deterioration of the lock.
Timing is important in this instance. The Chickamauga lock already requires heavy maintenance. Once, the lock required "de-watering," a process that completely drains the lock for structural repairs, every five years. Now it requires the time-consuming, expensive task every three years. Without an influx of funds, the frequency and costs associated with such necessary maintenance and other repairs surely will accelerate.
The prospect of shutting down and tying up traffic on the Tennessee River north of the dam looms ominously unless action is taken for permanent repair. Fleischmann's response? He won't discuss the obvious need for a tax increase or bipartisan compromise in Washington to fund such a vital infrastructure repair in Tennessee's 3rd District, nor, obviously, in any other district in the country. Moreover, he's standing firm as a signatory to Grover Norquist's anti-tax increase pledge that is the lodestar of the GOP's far right.
That might suit Fleischmann's conservative supporters, but it fails the broader welfare of his district, state and nation. Intransigence accomplishes nothing. Incremental funding to finish the new lock at Chickamauga Dam, a $683 million multiyear project stalled since 2010 by the budget battles in Washington, should be his priority. More than $500 million is still needed to finish the project. In fact, even the stop-gap repair and maintenance work on the lock will end next month unless Congress finds a solution to the current budget impasse.
Fleischmann's relentlessly negatives views on taxes and the necessity of investing in infrastructure, and his outright rejection of budget compromises, are failing the needs of Hamilton County and the larger region of East Tennessee. Until he acknowledges that deficit reduction requires bipartisanship and revenue increases as well as cuts in spending, he isn't likely to become a constructive, productive congressman — or to forward to cause of the Chickamauga lock.