Let's see if I've got this straight: The Bush White House is planning to hold the most expensive presidential inauguration in U.S. history, in the midst of a war in Iraq and in the aftermath of a disaster that has the world in mourning, and the administration wants the District to help pay for the spectacle -- by diverting federal money from the city's homeland security budget, no less.
Surely, the Bush administration couldn't be that thoughtless. Could it?
"This administration is trying, belatedly, to tighten its financial belt," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), told me yesterday. "Having spent the country into a dangerous deficit through tax cuts for the wealthy and the invasion of another country, they're trying to pinch pennies wherever they can."
Just four years ago, this same George W. Bush managed to pay for his inauguration without picking the District's pocket, just as every other newly elected president had done for 200 years. Then again, that was before the nation's $2 trillion surplus disappeared.
The Bush administration even agreed to give the city $15 million a year for an emergency fund to help defray expenses associated with security alerts and national demonstrations. That was thoughtful.
After all, protesters and supporters of various causes don't come to the District because it is home to the D.C. Council. They come looking for presidents, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.
Now, however, it appears that some in the Bush administration are not thinking so clearly about this matter.
A Dec. 7 letter to Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia, from D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) estimated the inauguration's cost to the District at $20 million and asked for reimbursement.
"The city is concerned that even this amount may be insufficient because of demands for extra security, including construction, now being made by the Inaugural Committee," Williams wrote. "The increased costs are driven by post-9/11 enhanced security needs as well as a significantly increased number of inaugural balls."
At a news conference near the Mall yesterday, James Adams, a reporter for WRC-TV (Channel 4), asked outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge about using city homeland security money for "things like bleachers."
"Well, I . . . the request that has been made of my department and which we approved was using some of the money for additional security measures, which is something the mayors of Boston and New York and others have done from time to time. Not aware that they're spending any of these dollars for infrastructure improvements. But they are entitled and eligible to use those dollars for overtime costs, so because money's fungible, maybe taking money out of the city's pot that they might have otherwise put in to overtime, and we're basically replacing that with overtime dollars."
"This amounts to more than robbing Peter to pay Paul," Norton said during the interview. "You are robbing the region -- and the administration -- of the very security that we depend on."
Paradoxically, while the diversion of funds would almost certainly weaken the District's security, law enforcement officials appear to be cracking down on District residents in preparation for the inauguration.
"I received a complaint from someone whose daughter was stopped by an agent who asked if she lived in the area," Norton said. "This was up near the Convention Center. Now, it's way too early for this kind of thing. No one should be stopping anybody and asking them if they live in the area. I'm about to go off on that one right now."
So, let me see if I've still got it straight: The Bush administration wages war on the cheap, sending too few troops with too little armor to Iraq, but goes whole hog when it comes to throwing a party; it wants to divert District homeland security money for the inauguration while security forces harass District residents in the name of security.
"The message from the Bush administration is: We're not spending any more from here on in," Norton said. "That's why they didn't wake up for several days to the tsunami disaster. Don't change your policy of giving tax breaks to the wealthy. Just pinch pennies wherever you can, even if you look insensitive to suffering, even if you look too cheap to pay for your own inaugural, even if you take homeland security funds to pay for your fun."
Hail to the chief.