Spending savvy

September 30, 2005

As President Bush and Congress began wildly flinging money at the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, it was widely assumed that some of it would be wasted or wind up in the wrong hands. Haste, inexperience, pressure and a lack of central control create the worst possible conditions for getting the most bang from a buck.

Sure enough, it wasn't long before reports began to appear of no-bid contracts and sweetheart deals for folks with insider connections.

Casting such arrangements in the most favorable light, they were probably less nefarious than expeditious. Something needs to get done fast, someone's got a friend who can do it. But that's how the federal government wound up leasing three Carnival cruise ships for six months to temporarily house hurricane evacuees who could have been accommodated more cheaply if they had actually been booked for a cruise.

With more than $62 billion to spend, prospects for waste, fraud and abuse grow exponentially.

The best idea we've seen for avoiding such a fiasco calls for speedy appointment of a chief financial officer to oversee all the hurricane-related spending, a highly respected green-eye-shade type who specializes in driving a hard bargain and is not afraid to say "no."

Among the proposal's many attractions is that it would direct congressional concern over reckless spending where it belongs - at the procurement process - not toward benefits for the hurricanes' most vulnerable and hapless victims. For example, the temporary expansion of Medicaid to help these folks, now held up in the Senate for financial concerns, is no place to economize.

The hurricane CFO proposal was offered by the odd-couple duo of Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn and Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, who are arguing for a more businesslike approach to the massive spending now under way. They contend that when it comes to negotiating contracts, federal bureaucrats are hopelessly outmatched by savvy professionals. Further, these political or civil servants are subject to pressures from Congress or elsewhere in the administration to give favored contractors a piece of the action.

But there's no real savings to be achieved by nickel-and-diming on health care for the poorest of the storm's victims - just cost shifting to those who can least afford it.

The five-month disaster Medicaid program backed by the Senate Finance Committee would cover all impoverished storm victims with identical benefits, wherever they are, without requiring former or host states to share the tab. That has to be more efficient and certainly more humane than the approach favored by the Bush administration and some senators, who want to leave it up to individual states to determine who will be covered based on how much states can afford to contribute for their share.

Disaster spending should be smart, but its primary goal is to relieve human suffering. If Congress ties the CFO proposal onto the Medicaid package, it could meet both objectives.

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