Leave Pork Out of Katrina Aid

Recently battered by waves of water, New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities soon will be caressed by waves of tax dollars. The initial $10.5 billion in disaster assistance that President Bush signed, even as hurricane survivors vacated the Crescent City, soon will be dwarfed by a second, $52 billion check from Washington. Other checks surely will roll in like the surf.

The ongoing emergency and unfolding humanitarian crisis in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama give Congress an opportunity to help Katrina’s victims rather than themselves. Democrats and Republicans alike should show enough restraint and maturity, just this once, to avoid larding up Katrina-related appropriations with dozens and even hundreds of unrelated vanity projects.

Sadly, Congress’ record in this area is discouraging. For years, members of both parties have exploited dire circumstances to wedge their own pet schemes into urgent assistance packages for people haunted by hardship.

  • An April 2005 measure that aided victims of last December’s south Asian tsunami also allocated $25 million for Montana’s Fort Peck Fish Hatchery and $500,000 for a University of Nevada oral history of “the Negotiated Settlement Project.”
  • An October 2003 natural-disaster assistance measure featured $9.7 million to compensate Michigan orchard owners for downed trees.
  • A $78.5 billion Iraq War appropriation in April 2003 included $110 million for Ames, Iowa’s National Animal Disease Center and $200,000 for the Light of Life Ministries in Allegheny County, Penn.

Citizens Against Government Waste, which cataloged these items, urges congressmen to sign its “Hurricane Katrina No-Pork Pledge” and “oppose any project or provision that is not directly related to the impact of Hurricane Katrina in any supplemental appropriations bill that provides funds for hurricane relief.”

“If Congress wants to inspire the American people to continue to make sacrifices, we need to be making sacrifices of our own,” Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona said in a statement. “Members of Congress should, at least temporarily, deny themselves a few of the comforts of political office and refrain from directing tax dollars to special projects in their states that might help their political campaigns but not necessarily the country as a whole.”

America’s brave legislators could start by returning to the Treasury many of the absurd budget earmarks they showered on themselves during recent spending orgies. The 2,000-page, $286.4 billion highway bill that veto-phobic President Bush signed on Aug. 10 virtually exploded with some 6,400 pet projects worth $24 billion. Among other things, it renames Alaska’s Knik Arm Bridge “Don Young’s Way,” after House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), and dedicates $229.45 million to that conduit. It also provides $20 million for a Magnetic Levitation Transportation System between Las Vegas, and Primm, Nev.

The closely related tendency of politicians and civil servants to stray from their vital duties and horn into almost any activity may have exacerbated the cataclysm that has engulfed New Orleans.

As Newsweek correspondent Charles Gasparino explained Sept. 7 on MSNBC.com, the Orleans Parish Levee Board is involved in plenty of stuff that has nothing to do with keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of people’s living rooms. It manages hundreds of acres of parks, dozens of commercial properties, a pair of marinas, an airfield, and a riverboat casino.

The Associated Press reported Jan. 31 that the state-appointed Levee Board has spent $2.8 million developing “a proposal to build a 4-mile-long island on Lake Pontchartrain with beaches, camping areas, and possibly hotels, restaurants, and an amusement park.” Cost: $200 million.

“Just imagine a 4-mile stretch of sandy beaches that doesn’t directly impact traffic, curtails pollutants in the lake, and maybe provides tourist attractions like hotels and museums,” said Levee Board commissioner Eugene Green. “That’s something that needs to be explored seriously.”

Had Congress and the Levee Board focused on bolstering New Orleans’ ramparts rather than underwriting laughable sideshows, Bourbon Street bartenders still might be pouring cocktails to go.

“Yes, moving more funds to what was an obvious impending disaster would have made sense, but that is not the way Congress works,” Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz laments to me. “They react instead of being proactive and prefer pork to progress. Do they get it? We will see.”

(Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)gmail.com.)