If the rebuilding of New Orleans is to be something other than a new government disaster, a coalition of the skeptical and the visionary will have to stand together and confront the lobbyists and the corporate welfare artists.
Fiscal conservatives in Congress are right to worry about the potential for -- yes -- waste, fraud and abuse if the federal government throws off tens of billions of dollars into a haphazard and ill-planned spending fest. If the goal is to spend as much money as quickly as possible, the benefits will flow primarily to the well-connected, and the result will be a new mess built on the old.
But because the rest of us are morally obligated to those whose lives have been damaged by natural calamity and government failure, it's a fact that the federal government will be spending a lot of money. That's why the fiscal conservatives need the visionaries. The visionaries are insisting that we put in the time to make New Orleans a model for a better kind of city and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast a model for a better approach to governing. The people of the region, not the lobbyists, need to lead in creating an environmentally sustainable, socially just and economically viable region.
These thoughts are inspired by one of Congress's rare visionaries. Rep. Earl Blumenauer not only represents his beloved city of Portland but is also evangelical in spreading Portland's gospel of "livability." That odd but increasingly popular word embodies the idea that if governments plan right (and in cooperation with local citizens), they can safeguard the environment, create more agreeable lives for families and individuals and let loose sustainable private-sector growth.
Blumenauer, a Democrat always seeking to put together left-right coalitions on behalf of his eclectic mix of ideas, is both worried and excited by the prospect of rebuilding the Gulf. Speaking for the fiscally conservative, he describes himself as "a little scared by how fast they're doing all this stuff because I don't think there's anybody in charge."
But his excitement burns through during a discussion at a restaurant in Portland's Pearl neighborhood, an old warehouse district near an abandoned rail yard that is now thriving. "I've been in Congress for nearly 10 years and I've never been so optimistic that we have a chance not just to engage in the gargantuan task of helping people in the Gulf, but also of healing the body politic." There is an opportunity, he says, for government to ask the basic questions: "How do you build a community? How do you get people involved? You've got to build a citizen infrastructure along with all the roads and bridges."
Blumenauer has more standing than most on this subject. On Jan. 26, after returning from a congressional visit to areas devastated by the Asian tsunami, he rose on the House floor to ask: "What would have happened if, last September, Hurricane Ivan had veered 40 miles to the west, devastating the city of New Orleans?"
"The city has always been at risk because of its low-lying location," Blumenauer warned, "but that risk has been increased because of rising sea levels, groundwater pumping and the erosion of coastal Louisiana . . . it is hard to imagine what would happen if a disaster of that magnitude hit the United States." Now, alas, we know.
Blumenauer is ecumenical in his criticisms of past practices, including the actions of Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers, and he even likes to think that President Bush might become an ally for the large packet of proposals he is peddling.
Why shouldn't the president want to leave a legacy of a New Orleans built on economically mixed neighborhoods and a thriving public transit system? Blumenauer sees new parks and buffer zones in areas where homes shouldn't be, and economic projects designed to put local people back to work. He wants to revisit past policies that encouraged development in dangerous places.
Above all, he wants to turn the hurricane's victims into decision makers. In the rebuilding, "people should have a role in what it should be like, rather than have it done to them." One of his biggest fears is that outsiders will simply turn New Orleans into a Disneyland.
There will be time to debate all of Blumenauer's ideas. But one thing is certain: If the fiscal conservatives and the visionaries don't come together quickly, the special-interest-lobbyist complex that doesn't care about planning and seeks only cash in the hands of its friends will dominate the reconstruction effort. That would be a disaster for all of us, and especially for the people of the Gulf.