Thursday, September 08, 2005

It's time to put New Orleans first

September 8, 2005

Bring Out Your Pork

Fair warning to the suffering Gulf Coast masses: Congress is already talking of concocting "economic stimulus" and "job creation" packages as hurricane recovery tools. That sounds useful, but unfortunately those terms usually signal that the House and the Senate are about to use the crisis of the moment to roll out wasteful tax cuts for the well-off and pork barrel outlays for hometown voters.

The overwhelming need of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the nation's shock at government ineptitude, should inspire members of Congress to sober up and become something approaching responsible policy makers. If they do decide to reform, there's an easy way to prove it. They could turn in their pork.

This summer, when Congress had to ignore only a war in Iraq, it passed the annual highway bill, repackaged as a job-creation measure. The legislation set a record of $24 billion in 6,371 "earmark amendments" - the route individual lawmakers take to lock in prized projects for their home districts, regardless of proven need.

The bipartisan boondoggles that made it under the wire included vanity highways, tourist sidewalks, snowmobile trails, a "deer avoidance" plan and a graffiti elimination program for New York. Those wishing to look for still more unnecessary spending can consider the White House's $130-billion-and-counting missile defense system, which remains thoroughly inoperable.

Hurricane Katrina cries out to Congress for something other than business as usual. Imagine what would happen if each member of Congress announced that he or she would give up a prize slab of bacon so the government would be able to use the money to shelter hurricane victims and rebuild New Orleans. The public would - for once - have proof that politicians are capable of setting priorities and showing respect for the concept of a budget.

Surely Representative Don Young, the Alaska Republican who is chairman of the transportation committee, might put off that $223 million "bridge to nowhere" in his state's outback. It's redundant now - Louisiana suddenly has several bridges to nowhere. Likewise, Speaker Dennis Hastert could defer his prized Prairie Parkway, a $200-million-plus project dismissed as a behemoth Sprawlway by hometown critics, and use the money to repair the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.

The Democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, could afford to donate back some multimillion-dollar plums - just one bike and pedestrian overpass, perhaps, or a ferry terminal. Another Democratic standout, James Oberstar of Minnesota, would have a hard time choosing from his cornucopia, but that $2.7 million for what is already described as the nation's longest paved recreational trail looks ripe.

The list is long. Such a gesture by the Capitol's patronage first responders would encourage a sense of shared sacrifice in the nation. Members might actually be surprised to see how many of their own constituents are prepared to think of other people's needs before themselves. This page has been a longtime supporter of a freight tunnel between New Jersey and New York - which, we should point out, is actually a tunnel to somewhere. But we'd applaud a delay in the $100 million for freight-tunnel design studies that was included in the highway bill if it was part of a larger reordering of priorities.

It's time to put New Orleans first.