I'm going to crawl out on a limb right now.
We'll hear a lot of rhetoric from the president and Congress about how we need to cut federal spending so we can rebuild New Orleans, and in the end, not much will be cut.
A couple hundred billion will be spent in Louisiana, the tax cuts will remain largely intact, and the deficit will mushroom.
How do I know this? Because I have a pulse and have watched the Hill drown itself in red ink for the last 30 years.
I hope I'm wrong, by the way. I don't think trying to have it all -- a zillion federal programs, tax cuts, war in Iraq, creating a new NOLA -- can possibly be good for our economy, especially if our politicians keep pushing the debt off to future generations.
Read the news stories carefully in the coming months. See who is just calling for reduced spending and who's actually pushing specific and painful cutbacks.
Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress briefly achieved a balanced budget in the late '90s, but that was in part because a booming economy helped stave off more difficult choices. In the post-9/11 world, Bush's budgets have grown so much -- without a single veto -- that even some conservatives now label him a big spender. The pork-encrusted highway bill, with such "earmarked" goodies as an Alaskan bridge to a nearly deserted island, shows that the Hill isn't serious about spending restraint.
A small example: Congress has been on Amtrak for years to rein in its deficits. But when the train service proposed a fare hike, lawmakers went haywire last week and pressured Amtrak into rescinding it.
If your family had an emergency, like losing your home in a flood, you would tighten your belt accordingly. But the White House and Congress can, in effect, just print more money.
The one good thing to come out of the disaster is a renewed debate over the best approach to alleviating poverty. But if you spend $200 billion on New Orleans, as many experts are predicting, and everything else remains more or less status quo, the current budget deficit of more than $300 billion is going to soar.
I will try to track the spending debate in this column so it doesn't get lost amid the political fog.
Instapundit | http://instapundit.com/archives/025618.php Glenn Reynolds wants bloggers to blow the whistle on waste:
"How are we going to mobilize the blogosphere in support of cuts in wasteful spending to support Katrina relief? Here's the plan. Identify some wasteful spending in your state or (even better) Congressional District. Put up a blog post on it. Go to N.Z. Bear's new PorkBusters page | http://truthlaidbear.com/porkbusters.php and list the pork, and add a link to your post. Then call your Senators and Representative and ask them if they're willing to support having that program cut or -- failing that -- what else they're willing to cut in order to fund Katrina relief. (Be polite, identify yourself as a local blogger and let them know you're going to post the response on your blog). Post the results. Then go back to NZ Bear's page and post a link to your follow-up blog post."
Examples from the pork postings: "$80,000 to evaluate air quality and congestion mitigation benefits of Hybrid Utility Vehicles in Santa Barbara County." And: "$3,973,000 for shrimp aquaculture research (Ariz., Hawaii, La., Mass., Miss., S.C., and Texas). According to USDA testimony in March 2004, 'the completion date for the original research objectives was 1987. The original objectives have been met.' " And in Maine: "$57,500 for the Moosetown Riders, Inc. to purchase a snowmobile trail groomer."
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com dissents: "But the blogosphere campaign to battle pork in the face of Katrina, however admirable, still strikes me as too easy. The truth is: even if we got rid of all the pork, we'd still be in deep fiscal doo-doo. People like me who want to find the money to pay for Iraq and Katrina should be asked what we'd cut. Here's my basic list: postpone or repeal or radically scale back the Medicare drug benefit so it only affects the truly needy; restore the estate tax in full; phase in the means-testing of social security; end agricultural subsidies; kill off all corporate tax relief and the mortgage deduction and move toward a flat tax. That's a start. How many fiscal conservatives will bite these bullets?"
Newsweek columnist Allan Sloan | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9377813/site/newsweek/ nails the problem:
"Can the federal government afford to pay $200 billion or so to repair the damage from Katrina? Of course not -- but we're going to spend it anyway. So how are we going to get the money? We're going to borrow it, primarily from foreign lenders, such as the central banks of China and Japan. Borrowing is how we've been able to pay for the war in Iraq and cut taxes at the same time . . .
"Borrowing endlessly for Katrina and Iraq and tax cuts and Homeland Security is possible only because foreigners are willing to keep buying U.S. Treasury securities despite the relatively low interest rates they pay. At least for now. The cost of hocking ourselves to the eyeballs shows up in the line of the federal budget that says how much interest we're paying. Interest will run about $350 billion in the current fiscal year, according to projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It rises to $385 billion next year, $426 billion the year after and so on. This is without Katrina. Just the interest on Katrina -- call it 4 percent on $200 billion -- is $8 billion a year."
Roger Simon | http://www.rogersimon.com/archive/2005/09/deeper_in_debt.html#002800 has a simple explanation of what's going down:
"If you count Hurricane Katrina as the third great crisis of his presidency -- Sept. 11, 2001 and the occupation of Iraq being the first two -- Bush has once again refused to call for any real sacrifice on the part of the American people to meet the crisis.
This is no accident. Sacrifice is what Democrats call for, not Republicans."
Noting that Bush had spoken from New Orleans of cutting unnecessary spending -- which made me wonder why he hadn't cut it before -- Simon says: "But in Washington, unnecessary spending is like unnecessary sex: It doesn't exist. And within minutes, CNN's John King was on the air saying he had talked to presidential aides, who admitted they had no specific spending cuts in mind."
Remember, in this area, words are cheap.
Wayne Uff at Bad Attitudes | http://badattitudes.com/MT/archives/003019.html scoffs at GOP budgetary logic:
"Let me get the plan of congressional Republicans like Tom Tancredo straight: we take on an optional war in Iraq, and it is fine to put that on a credit card for the past three years and for years to come; but the minute we need to launch a two-year rebuild of a major region of the United States, we have to find budget offsets such as delaying/gutting the new Medicare drug benefit?
"What's the difference between the two? That's easy: the Iraq war eligible to be funded with 30-year paper because it is a central part of the agenda of the G.O.P and the W.I.C. (the 'Weakener-in-Chief,' a/k/a, 'W') because it weakens America internationally, provides a honey pot to feed large corporations such as Halliburton, and divides us at home; whereas, rebuilding a disaster-struck area of the United States would actually strengthen the United States . . .
"I'm not saying that it's not a good idea to reel back in some of the highway and other pork-barrel spending that Congress has been heavy-handedly directing primarily to Republican districts (note that the poster child in this regard is a $250 million bridge to nowhere in Alaska); it is. But that's not the plan that the W.I.C.'s Weaken-Troopers have in mind; that plan will be balanced on the backs of the blue states and blue constituencies."
Steve Moore | http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110007278, the former Club for Growth man, says in the Wall Street Journal that Bush is earning the big-spender label:
"When President Bush announced last Thursday that the feds would take a lead role in the reconstruction of New Orleans, he in effect established a new $200 billion federal line of credit. To put that $200 billion in perspective, we could give every one of the 500,000 families displaced by Katrina a check for $400,000, and they could each build a beach front home virtually anywhere in America.
"This flood of money comes on the heels of a massive domestic spending build-up in progress well before Katrina traveled its ruinous path. Federal spending, not counting the war in Iraq, was growing by 7% this year, which came atop the 30% hike over Mr. Bush's first term. Republicans were already being ridiculed as the Grand Old Spending Party by taxpayer groups. Their check-writing binge in response to the hurricane only confirmed, as conservative leader Paul Weyrich put it, that 'the GOP, once the party of small government, has lost its bearings and the Republican establishment doesn't seem to get the message that the grass roots of the party is enraged.' . . .
"Mike Pence of Indiana suggested a one-year delay on the multitrillion dollar new prescription drug benefit for senior citizens. For 220 years, seniors have managed without this give-away; one more year of waiting would hardly be an act of cruelty. It would save $40 billion, but there were no takers. Then there was the well-publicized idea by Republicans and several Democrats in Congress to cut $25 billion for bike paths, train-station renovations, nature trails, parking garages, auto museums and 6,000 other such pork projects in the just-enacted highway law. It was torpedoed by the powerful committee chairmen who patched this abominable bill together in the first place."
These are the very projects that Instapundit was talking about. Of course, one man's pork is another's vital community project.
Another odd performance by the Big Easy mayor, who had been defying the feds in insisting he'd let people back into his ruined city yesterday -- despite such minor details as a lack of electricity and running water:
"Facing a possible second deadly storm, Mayor C. Ray Nagin today changed direction and suspended the program to allow residents to return to this beleaguered city, which has been severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina," says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-091905katrina_lat,0,7596816.story?coll=la-home-headlines.
"Nagin announced his change of mind at an afternoon news conference, but pressure to halt the return of as many as 180,000 residents had been building all day, even as some returned to neighborhoods that had survived Katrina."
American Prospect's Robert Kuttner | http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=10331 says Bush is taking a blame-the-poor approach:
"One thing we learned from Hurricane Katrina is that America still has a lot of poor people, who are disproportionately black and mostly invisible to the affluent and to the media. Behind the glitzy stage set of the quaint New Orleans tourist economy was a grindingly poor city.
"Most poor people work for a living, just like most middle-class people do. They are the people who the Rev. Jesse Jackson famously said 'take the early bus,' and take care of other people's young children and aging parents, sometimes at cost to their own families . . .
"While many students of poverty in America blame depressed incomes on low wages, unaffordable health insurance, inadequate childcare, and the lack of opportunities for good jobs that stay put, leading conservative intellectuals blame poverty on character defects.
"This is an argument as old as the English Poor Law of 1601. If only the poor were more provident, they would scrimp, save, and join the middle class. In this view, social programs are just handouts that spoil the poor.
"Bush, interestingly, doesn't reject all social programs. One of his major social programs, intended to remedy 'character defects,' is a program that puts the federal government squarely in the business of promoting marriage."
Check this out: The Abramoff scandal spreads!
"A senior White House budget official who resigned abruptly last week was arrested Monday on charges of lying to investigators and obstructing a federal inquiry involving Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist who has been under scrutiny by the Justice Department for more than a year," says the NYT | http://nytimes.com/2005/09/20/politics/20lobby.html?hp&ex=1127275200&en=083385ffda531ffa&ei=5094&partner=homepage.
"The arrest of the official, David H. Safavian, head of procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget, was the first to result from the wide-ranging corruption investigation."
Jeff Jarvis | http://www.buzzmachine.com plays the numbers game, raising a question that journalists never stop to ponder:
"If a storm caused the river by your isolated farm to flood, ruining your house and your work, leaving you homeless and jobless, you'd likely receive no media attention and no extraordinary government help and not much charity from strangers.
"But if the same thing happens to you when you are among hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation at the same time -- if you are one among a big number -- then you will be lavished with media obsession and some of the billions, even hundreds of billions in federal money and many millions more in charity devoted to your plight.
"Is that fair? No, logically, it isn't. But it indicates how driven our society has become to big numbers, thanks first to media, second to politics . . .
"If life, government, and media were fair -- if government policy and media coverage were driven by principles rather than publicity -- then the lone farmer above would have the same rights to help as the millions driven out by Katrina. Of course, there are added issues caused by this catastrophe: A region's infrastructure -- its roads, schools, utilities, services -- were also disrupted or destroyed.
"So take another charged example: 9/11. If the families of the heroes and victims of that day had a right to receive recompense from government and charity for their loss -- and who will argue with that? -- then, it has been asked, why don't the families of the soldiers killed by terrorists in Iraq or the innocents killed in Oklahoma City or for that matter the doctors killed by anti-abortion terrorists?
"But this isn't about principle. It is about numbers. We pay attention to big numbers. And whose fault is that? Media's, first and foremost."
The same question comes up when a few soldiers are killed in Iraq: how many is enough to warrant a sizable story? Even though every death is obviously a tragedy.
Here's the chilling journalism story of the day, from the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/19/international/middleeast/19cnd-basra.html?hp&ex=1127188800&en=92c77020997df435&ei=5094&partner=homepage:
"An Iraqi journalist and photographer working for The New York Times in Basra was found dead early this morning in Basra after being abducted from his home by a group of armed men wearing masks and claiming to be police officers, relatives said."
Finally, here's one way to hold down the federal deficit:
"Oprah Winfrey, who broadcast two shows from the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast region, yesterday pledged $10 million to the victims of Hurricane Katrina," says the New York Post | http://www.nypost.com/news/nationalnews/53718.htm.
"TV's richest star made her announcement on yesterday's 'Oprah Winfrey Show' -- the debut episode of her 20th season."