September 08, 2005

Oversight, Anyone?

What do I have in commmon with Tom Tancredo, Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan, and Joe Barton? Well, nothing, really, but they were part of a contingent of twelve Republicans who voted against the $51.8 billion relief package for Katrina reconstruction, and I'm not—entirely—sure a 'nay' vote is a bad idea, although our motives almost certainly differ. Here's Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) on his vote against: "According to the Office of Management and Budget, we are spending money at a rate of $2 billion a day, and yet we in the Congress do not have many details at all on how that money is being spent." Um, pretty good point, actually. How is the money being spent?

Because let's see: Already we have Bush crony and Iraq payola-master Joe Allbaugh down in New Orleans, making sure his friends and associates are getting the no-bid contracts they so desperately need. Now we hear that FEMA itself, led by Michael Brown and other assorted GOP operatives, will get to dole out the reconstruction slush fund. Meanwhile, the president has allowed all federal officials to run up the limit on their credit cards. (But workers, don't get too excited: the president also suspended the 'prevailing wage' laws for reconstruction. No boondoggle for you.) If history is any guide, post-disaster relief money tends to get tossed around without any sort of accountability. See this Reason article from 1993 on Congress' response after Hurricane Andrew:
By the time [George H.W.] Bush and Congress had worn themselves out from stuffing extra goodies into the hurricane aid package, it was $8 billion for Florida alone. The only part that met any resistance was Bush's proposal to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base, which was nearly closed last year as part of a general military cutback and was expected to be on the next list of bases to shut down. Opposition to the reconstruction of Homestead, however, represented not a heroic burst of political courage but rather an act of shared venality: Several congressmen suddenly sensed the opportunity to save hitherto-doomed bases in their own districts. Closing Homestead meant one less base would have to bite the dust elsewhere.

Virtually every other boondoggle that was suggested was accepted. Special hurricane counseling for the deaf? Sure. Emergency grants to hire performance artists to dress up like Santa Claus? Why not? After all, as one aide to the House Appropriations Committee noted in a widely reprinted quote, "Simply put, our job is to start shoveling bucks south." Some politicians were positively unhinged by an opportunity to spend money for a cause that was utterly beyond criticism. My favorite was Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston (D), who breezily dismissed questions about who would pick up the tab. "It will be paid for out of the deficit," Johnston explained. "The deficit is big enough to encompass this too."
The gift that keeps on giving, these disasters. I suppose we can expect more of the same this time around. Venal gifts and special favors. No-bid contracts and patronage. Campaign donors, come on down! Not to mention that this reconstruction endeavor will also be paid for with that nice large deficit we've squirreled away for a rainy day. This looks to be the biggest boondoggle since, well, since John Kerry's infamous $87 billion. And there are early signs that the baronial squabbling has already started. Check out this lede from the AP: "A triumvirate of Republican power brokers may give Mississippi first dibs in the post-Hurricane Katrina grab for federal disaster funds even though the federal government focused its initial response to the storm on New Orleans." Ah, Republican power brokers...

Now I don't think this means no federal money should go towards relief—clearly you need to accept some pork and venality if you want anything positive to get done—but the way Congress is crawling all over itself to see who can spend the most first, free of all oversight, doesn't inspire much confidence. Misguided and self-interested congressional spending, after all, is partly how New Orleans got into this mess in the first place. Things need to change before billions more get squandered.
-- Brad Plumer 11:43 PM || ||