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'Whatever It Costs'

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, September 19, 2005

It's hard to say what's worse: The incompetence of the administration's initial hurricane response or the cowardice of its follow-up. Faced with a small hit to his ratings, the president who once boasted of ignoring polls is rushing to spend billions of other people's dollars on saving his political skin. His philosophy is, "It's going to cost whatever it costs." That phrase should be the title of some future history of the Bush era.

The worst part is, President Bush doesn't even think his splurge will be effective. If he really believed that government could overcome racial inequality by targeting subsidies at minority businesses, he should have rolled out a national program long ago. But he doesn't believe anything of the kind. His promises of racial healing are entirely cynical.

What Bush really believes is that government is ineffective. Or at least that's what he says he believes: Late last week he declared that his (self-) reconstruction program should be financed by cuts in other government spending rather than by tax increases, so as to "maintain economic growth and vitality." In other words, government spending is bad because it's inefficient and wasteful. Leaving money in private hands is intrinsically superior. If Bush believes that, why does he think that government should build whole shantytowns of provisional housing? Why doesn't he believe in the private rental market of the South, which is offering 1.1 million units of vacant property?

Early on after the catastrophe, Small Government Bush suspended a law that props up construction wages paid by federal contractors, with the result that workers in the disaster zone will have less disposable income but government will save money.

One week later, after the panic had set in, Reconstruction Bush was yammering about $5,000 worker recovery accounts, which would come on top of the free government homes and sundry other benefits that the administration is also promising.

If Bush used this moment as he used the aftermath of Sept. 11, some of this spending could be forgiven. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exposed the nation's complacency about terrorism; Bush stepped forward and changed that. In a similar way, Hurricane Katrina exposed the complacency of our business-as-usual attitude toward domestic government. Bush has barely noticed.

The complacency begins with the appalling state of federal staffing. It's not just that the hapless former boss of the Federal Emergency Management Agency knew more about horses than floods. It's that the government agencies that must now manage relief are missing senior officials, either because their confirmations have been held up in the Senate or because the administration has yet to appoint anyone. As The Post reported last week, seven of the top positions at the Department of Housing and Urban Development stand vacant. Perhaps it's no surprise that the administration has cooked up its crazy shantytown proposal.

This staffing crisis is well known; two months before the 2001 attacks, about half of the national security positions stood empty. But Katrina creates an opportunity to tackle the problem. The federal government needs to be returned to an earlier era, when more executive-branch positions went to career civil servants who didn't need to be confirmed and didn't owe their jobs to college roommates. Bush hasn't even raised this issue.

Katrina also exposed the corruption in the way government dispenses money. The levees around New Orleans were inadequate not because the nation spends too little on water infrastructure; far from it. They were inadequate because water funds are allocated by cronyism rather than by cost-benefit analysis. On any honest crunching of the numbers, fortifying New Orleans looked like an excellent investment. But undeserving projects hogged all the money because they had more powerful sponsors in Congress. Bush hasn't breathed a word about this scandal.

Or take the perverse state of federal flood insurance. Because the program is subsidized, the feds are effectively paying people to build vulnerable houses on the beach; then they bail out flood victims whether or not they've actually signed up and paid their premiums. You might think that Katrina has driven home this lesson once and for all. Bush shows no sign of having grasped it.

Most seriously of all, Katrina exposed the government's incapacity to prepare for emergencies. The failure of response to a predicted flood in New Orleans is only the tip of the iceberg. Name just about any potential disaster, from a bioterrorism attack to avian flu, from an interruption in the flow of Saudi oil to a crash in the dollar. Are the feds prepared? Of course not. They are not even preparing for problems that are 100 percent assured, such as the coming baby bust.

After the terrorist attacks of 2001, Bush rose to the challenge -- perhaps rather too vigorously. After Katrina, he's lost his political nerve and all sense of the big picture. The hurricane has exposed our government as complacent, corrupt and unprepared; it has also created a brief and fleeting chance to launch bold reforms. Yet Bush seems content to accept business as usual. He will sit back and wait for disasters, then write large checks. Hey, it's going to cost whatever it costs. Is this supposed to be leadership?

mallabys@washpost.com


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