In attempting to understand the shameful puniness of the response by President Bush and Congress to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, I ran across an interesting number the other day.
That number is $29 billion.
This is presumably the sum just voted for the task of shifting from cleanup to actual reconstruction -- of both properties and lives.
I say presumably because the number turns out to be a fraud. In fact, it represents the allocation of large sums of money that Congress has already appropriated. More precisely, much less than half of it -- about $11.5 billion -- is what they call ''new" grant money. The rest is simply the result of the reshuffling of already appropriated sums.
Perhaps you recall the atmosphere in September in the immediate aftermath of the horror that Katrina wreaked. Within three weeks, Congress had passed, and Bush had signed into law, roughly $62 billion in appropriations to pay for the massive cleanup .
Nearly four months later, depending on which agency's figures you prefer, no more than a third of that money has been spent. The list of cleanup tasks not completed is prodigious -- from piles of debris to polluted neighborhoods to tent cities and trailer park communities to the tens of thousands of families still huddled in motels.
Always inventive, what the government really did was repackage all this ''assistance" for the purpose of creating the illusion in the current budget mess that something meaningful is happening when nothing could be further from the truth.
But it gets better. In addition to not allocating the money initially appropriated, Bush and Congress have managed to claim during this week's budget fraud that the famous $29 billion will not add a penny to the already hemorrhaging federal budget. This meaningless claim is based on two phony points.
The first is the shell game I just referred to -- the fact that nearly $20 billion of that sum has already been appropriated and not spent for the benefit of the Gulf Coast.
The second involves the assertion that about $40 billion has been cut from other parts of the federal budget. The point holds only if you assume that there will be no Congress next year; if in fact Congress returns for more mischief, everyone knows that in an election year there will be a package including roughly $100 billion in tax cuts for hard-pressed wealthy people.
It is then that the point being made this month will evaporate. Instead of cutting the budget to make room for aid to the Gulf Coast, the budget will have been cut (in every instance at the expense of working families, many of whom live in Louisiana and Mississippi) in order to make room for tax cuts.
Students of the Bush-Congress axis will find something familiar in all this. This is basically how the government has proceeded with its plans for the reconstruction of Iraq's broken economy. At first, all but a pittance was to have been funded by the gush of new oil production. When that didn't happen, $20 billion was ''allocated," hardly any of which was spent for two years; and what was spent was largely wasted or ''reallocated" to military budgets. Today, reconstruction limps along at a tiny fraction of the pace originally anticipated.
The Gulf Coast should be so lucky. When President Bush was using prime time in New Orleans' Jackson Square in September to try to promise his way out of his abysmal handling of the disaster, by now there was supposed to be a plan not only to house and take care of evacuees but to reconstruct their battered region.
Well, there is no plan. Even the basic precondition of private and public investment and resettlement in the New Orleans area -- rebuilding the levee system so that it can withstand another major hurricane -- is only tentatively met. The recent ''allocation" of a couple of billion dollars for the levees may (or may not) protect the metropolitan area from another Katrina in about two years. The basic question of whether a system should be built to survive an even larger storm is being left for further study.
The horrendous damage caused by the hurricane should have produced a reallocation of national priorities sufficient to pay for a sensible reconstruction plan. Instead there is no plan, just more federal government blue smoke and mirrors leaving millions of people to beg each year for budgetary table scraps.
This is Thomas Oliphant's final column as a Globe staff columnist.
2005 The Boston Globe