Corruption as Usual

Two hurricanes have now hit Louisiana, wreaking terrible destruction. New Orleans continues to flood. Hundreds of thousands of people are scattered across the country, many in shelters. Given the scale of the calamity, surely it’s time for Louisiana politicians to stop, assess the damage and work out the most rational way to help their state recover. Surely this is not the time for the government to write blank checks, for legislators to get greedy about unnecessary canals in their districts, or for federal agencies to launch projects that make future flooding more likely. Surely this is the time to spend money wisely. Right?

Wrong — and if you thought otherwise, then you, like me, are still learning how deeply corrupt America’s legislative branch has become. Most of the time, members of Congress don’t accept cash bribes in unmarked envelopes. Most of the time, senators don’t pay for their daughters’ wedding receptions out of government slush funds. Most of the time, American politicians don’t put their ill-gotten gains into numbered Swiss bank accounts or get the Mafia to launder their money. But corruption comes in many forms, and in this country it comes in the dull-sounding, unglamorous, switch-off-the-television form of infrastructure appropriations.

Exhibit A is the Louisiana congressional delegation’s new request for $250 billion in hurricane reconstruction funds. As a Post editorial pointed out yesterday, this money — more than $50,000 per Louisiana resident — would come on top of the $62.3 billion Congress has already appropriated, on top of the charitable donations, on top of the insurance payouts. Among other things, the proposal demands $40 billion of new Army Corps of Engineers spending, 16 times more than the Corps says it needs to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane. Despite the fact that previous Corps projects drained Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, thereby destroying what could have been a natural buffer against at least some of the Rita and Katrina storm surges, the proposal calls for a suspension of environmental reviews. Despite the fact that Louisiana spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water projects that turned out to be unnecessary, or even damaging, the proposal makes it possible to suspend cost-benefit analyses.

In its scale and sheer disregard for common sense, the Louisiana proposal breaks new ground. But I don’t want to single out Louisiana: After all, the state’s representatives are acting logically, even if they aren’t spending logically. They are playing by the rules of the only system for distributing federal funds that there is, and that system allocates money not according to the dictates of logic, but to the demands of politics and patronage.

Nor does this logic apply only to obvious boondoggles such as federal transportation spending, the last $286 billion tranche of which funded Virginia horse trails, Vermont snowmobile trails, a couple of “bridges to nowhere” in rural Alaska and decorative trees for a California freeway named after Ronald Reagan (a president who once vetoed a transportation bill because it contained too much pork). On the contrary, this logic applies even to things we supposedly consider important, such as homeland security. Because neither the administration nor Congress is prepared to do an honest risk assessment, and because no one dares say that there are states at almost no risk of terrorist attack, a good chunk of homeland security funding is distributed according to formulas that give minimum amounts to every state. The inevitable result: In 2004 the residents of Wyoming received, per capita, seven times more money for first responders than the residents of New York City.

Of course, there are risks to writing about this subject. The very words involved — “infrastructure,” “funding” and “pork” — cause readers’ eyes to glaze over, and Washingtonians’ eyes to roll. Government waste is, after all, as old as government itself: More than 60 years ago, Sen. Harry Truman made his national reputation ferreting out wasteful World War II government defense contracts. This, as anyone will tell you, is the way Washington works. No war, no terrorist attack — and certainly no hurricane — is going to alter it.

But maybe at least it is time for a change of terminology. After all, taking $200 million of public money to build a bridge, name it after yourself and get reelected isn’t merely “pork.” Demanding $250 billion of public money for your hurricane-damaged state — in the hope that voters will ignore all the mistakes you made before the hurricane struck — isn’t just “waste” either. As I say, corruption comes in many forms. But whatever form it comes in, it will be easier for voters to identify if it’s called by its true name.

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