Toxic floodwaters are draining into Lake Pontchartrain, enabling rescue workers to recover New Orleans' dead. Millions of Americans watch with horror, and wonder how could this have happened in the richest country on earth.
At the same time, an unneeded $231 million bridge to a sparsely inhabited part of Alaska is to be built.
Yes, there is a connection.
The bridge stands as a monument to a corrupt Washington culture - a culture that has mismanaged and plundered our nation's treasury. The exact culture that allowed Hurricane Katrina to wreak more destruction than it ever should have. A corrupt culture that has cost this nation hundreds of billions of dollars in rebuilding costs. It has cost us a city, a flourishing cultural center, and it has cost us lives.
The bridge is aptly named "Don Young's Way," after Alaska's Republican Rep. Don Young, the House Transportation Committee chairman who gleefully described his having stuffed the transportation bill "like a turkey."
The same Congress rejected the Army Corps of Engineers' request for $27 million to improve levees around Lake Pontchartrain, allocating only $5.7 million. In this fiscal year, the corps also requested $78 million for drainage control in New Orleans; Congress allocated less than half that amount. For a fraction of the cost of "Don Young's Way," hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars could have been saved in reconstruction costs.
In June 2004, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, "For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees." Of course, the federal budget was not really cut. The money was siphoned away from needed ventures into pork projects.
The corps was interested in protecting people, not dispersing political patronage. Such thinking is unwelcome in the current Congress. Politics trumps policy at every level of the federal government, starting with the purse strings in the House of Representatives.
See the link now?
"Pork before people" has become the mantra in the Congress of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. The nation's treasury in Mr. DeLay's world is ransacked booty; forget about using that money to help the American people.
When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, an indignant nation hoped they would clean up the abuses by the Democrats. Having been in power for too long, the Democrats were rightfully seen as corrupt, wasteful and obsessed with pork projects.
Well, after a decade in power, it appears the Republicans are a testament to historian Lord Acton's famous observation, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Even the libertarian Cato Institute detects the slide of the Republican Party, noting "the complete abandon of fiscal discipline by the Republican majority in Congress." From a balanced budget during the Clinton years, the Republican Congress now offers up a steady stream of quarter-trillion-dollar deficits.
But the tragedy in New Orleans underscores a far greater cancer eating away at our nation's ability to protect its citizens: the pork-before-people politics of Mr. DeLay.
While some of the blame for Katrina does lie with regional and state governments, those governments are not under the control of all voters. The federal government's awful response to Katrina is an area where all Americans can make their voices heard. Beyond incompetence, the government has shown an utter disregard for the welfare of its citizens.
In a recent tour of the Houston Astrodome, Mr. DeLay was overheard asking homeless children if their stay wasn't a bit like summer camp. A joking Mr. DeLay reportedly asked the bewildered children, "Now tell me the truth, boys, is this kind of fun?"
It's time for the American public to put human life above political cronyism. It's time for Mr. DeLay and his congressional supporters to find a permanent summer camp, far away from Washington, where they can have all the fun they've ever dreamed of. I hear there's deserted land in Alaska that would make a perfect camp for Mr. DeLay's retirement.
And a $231 million bridge to take him there.
Allan Kanner is a Tulane University law professor, an attorney and a resident of New Orleans.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun