No Sense of Shame

New Orleans fell victim to a perfect storm of official failures. But senators and representatives of both parties have rushed to blame blithering incompetents of the executive branch, hoping we won’t remember that they just spent the summer like diners at a boardinghouse, making one request most of all: Please pass the pork.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress larded as much as $24 billion of federal tax money into a record 6,371 pet pork projects that members of both parties inserted into the huge transportation bill, which was signed into law by President Bush. The money Congress spent on nonessential pork projects this year _ as well as in years past _ has far exceeded the spending that could have saved New Orleans by fortifying its levees against a powerful Category 4 hurricane such as Katrina.

Please Pass the Pork: Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and his state’s sole representative in the House, pushed almost $1 billion into home-state projects. Among them was a humongous, nonessential, one-mile-long, 200-foot-high bridge from Ketchikan (population 8,000) to an island where only 50 people live. The island does have a small airport. It would be far cheaper to buy every resident a private jet. As the congressman explained last year: “This is the time to take advantage of the position I’m in.”

While Bush cut the $142.7 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding request for New Orleans flood control by more than two-thirds, it is also true that the Corps wasn’t going to use much of the money to fortify the city’s levees. The Corps had contented itself with fortifying New Orleans’ levees only against a Category 3 hurricane, according to a statement issued by the Corps, and intended to spend most of its $41.5 million allocation on other water projects.

Please Pass the Pork: Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee, porked up the bill with five projects totaling $14.56 million for greater Duluth. Among them is $3.2 million to extend the nation’s longest paved recreational trail, the 69-mile-long Willard Munger State Trail, named after a former congressman.

Federal, state and local officials had years of ample warning. In 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a five-part series detailing experts’ analysis that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would cause catastrophic flooding of New Orleans because the existing levees could not hold back the water that would flow into the city that is below the level of the water that virtually surrounds it.

In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency _ the now-infamous FEMA _ conducted an exercise named “Hurricane Pam” that anticipated New Orleans being hit by a 120 mph hurricane. The damage predicted from last year’s exercise was the damage that occurred this year. Yet afterwards, FEMA issued a press release proclaiming that “great progress” had been made in planning to ensure that New Orleans residents would be safeguarded.

Please Pass the Pork: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., greased the way for $207 million to be allocated to a “Prairie Parkway” through Kane and Kendall counties _ even though the Illinois Department of Transportation is only now studying the matter and won’t know for three more years whether it is better to build the new highway or just improve existing roads.

Maybe we should be encouraged that in this much-decried era of partisan bitterness in the nation’s capital, congressional Republicans and Democrats have found one area in which they can work with benign bipartisanship: pork.

Members of Congress seem to have developed their own version of evenhandedness. They point fingers of blame all around town with one hand, while scratching each other’s backs with the other. As long as the issue before them is something as vital as their pork, rather than foolish frills such as your health care, jobs, pensions _ or security, be it homeland or social.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats seem to have lost a vital sensory perception. They have apparently lost all sense of shame.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)