Lessons unlearned

September 14, 2005

Levees in New Orleans weren't the only barricades breached by Hurricane Katrina. The flimsy restraints that Congress was trying to impose on its budget process earlier this year collapsed within moments of the first angry critique of federal failures in protecting the Gulf Coast and assuring a speedy rescue of the victims.

In their rush to spare themselves blame, the lawmakers quickly approved more than $60 billion in emergency relief money and expect to approve at least $50 billion more within weeks - all of which will have to be borrowed because the federal budget is in the red.

What's particularly dismaying is that Congress seems to have learned nothing from the catastrophe and from the deep flaws in its pork-barrel procedures Katrina exposed so clearly.

Congress' decision not to prioritize virtually any spending according to defensible needs, but rather to dole out dollars based on political clout short-shrifted not only the levee system but also the emergency management network charged with addressing the storm's aftermath.

Yet now the door to the federal treasury has been flung open even wider. Lobbyists for every imaginable industry or cause, including some turned away by Congress earlier in the year, are all back on Capitol Hill with their hands out.

Unless congressional leaders - on a bipartisan basis - muster the necessary will to build some kind of limits into this process, Katrina will continue to exact a financial toll far into the future with no assurance that those displaced by the hurricane will actually be helped.

With proposals coming from every committee in Congress, Senate Budget Committee chairman Judd Gregg warned his colleagues: "I think we are going to wake up six months from now or three months from now and realize that a haphazard approach has not been effective either in resolving the problem in the Gulf Coast or in managing the taxpayers' money effectively."

Perhaps the best idea would be to give the job of coordinating federal Katrina-related spending to Mr. Gregg's committee and its counterpart in the House.

Budget committees don't have enough control over spending now. They approve broad blueprints that are supposed to guide specific appropriations, but are often and easily ignored. They also set the groundwork for tax cuts and reductions in automatic spending programs, some of which were upended this month by Katrina.

Empowering the budget committees to set priorities for Katrina spending would not only inject some needed discipline into the process, but reduce the opportunity for extraneous add-ons. It also would perhaps set Congress on course for a long overdue overhaul of the way it allocates taxpayer money.

Lawmakers use pork to buy favor with voters. But polls suggest a new tactic is in order. More responsible stewardship of taxpayer money would be a good start.

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