OMB vs. Army Corps of Engineers

Critics Say Bush Undercut New Orleans Flood Control

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005

President Bush repeatedly requested less money for programs to guard against catastrophic storms in New Orleans than many federal and state officials requested, decisions that are triggering a partisan debate over administration priorities at a time when the budget is strained by the Iraq war.

Even with full funding in recent years, none of the flood-control projects would have been completed in time to prevent the swamping of the city, as Democrats yesterday acknowledged. But they said Bush's decision to hold down spending on fortifying levees around New Orleans reflected a broader shuffling of resources -- to pay for tax cuts and the Iraq invasion -- that has left the United States more vulnerable.

The complaints showed how the Hurricane Katrina disaster is prompting the same recriminations that surround nearly all subjects in the capital's current angry mood. The reaction was in contrast to the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when for a season partisan politics was largely suspended and Bush had the backing of the opposition party.

A main point of controversy hinges on what until now were obscure decisions in the annual budget process, marked by routine tensions between agencies and local congressional delegations on one side and White House budget officials on the other.

In recent years, Bush repeatedly sought to slice the Army Corps of Engineers' funding requests to improve the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain, which Katrina smashed through, flooding New Orleans. In 2005, Bush asked for $3.9 million, a small fraction of the request the corps made in internal administration deliberations. Under pressure from Congress, Bush ultimately agreed to spend $5.7 million. Since coming to office, Bush has essentially frozen spending on the Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for protecting the coastlines, waterways and other areas susceptible to natural disaster, at around $4.7 billion.

As recently as July, the White House lobbied unsuccessfully against a plan to spend $1 billion over four years to rebuild coastlines and wetlands, which serve as buffers against hurricanes. More than half of that money goes to Louisiana.

At the same time, the president has reorganized government to prepare for possible terrorist attacks, folding emergency-response agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Department of Homeland Security. Bush said government functions needed to be streamlined to allow for better communications among agencies and speedier responses to terrorist attacks and other crises.

"Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, adding that the administration in recent years has dedicated a total of $300 million for flood control in the New Orleans area. Beyond that, he dismissed questions about specific projects as mere partisan sniping. "This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics," McClellan said.

The Corps of Engineers, which worked closely with White House officials on its response, went to the defense of the administration, denying that additional money would have made a difference this week because the defenses of New Orleans were designed to withstand a Category 3 storm, not a Category 4 hurricane such as Katrina. "It was not a funding issue," said Carol Sanders, the chief spokeswoman for the corps. "It's an issue of the design capabilities of these projects."

But a growing number of Democrats are pointing to stalled relief efforts, substandard flood protection systems and the slow pace of getting military personnel to the hardest-hit areas as evidence of a distracted government.

"It is hard to say, but it is true: There was a failure by [Bush] to meet the responsibility here," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "Somebody needs to say it."

Is the National Guard "depleted because so many Guard are in Iraq that we don't have the opportunity to activate civil control?" asked Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "That question has to be asked." Almost one in three National Guardsmen in Louisiana is serving in Iraq or war-related efforts, according to the National Guard.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company