Cover-Up Time

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Oh good. Congress is planning to engineer a bipartisan cover-up of the failures surrounding Katrina. Really, this should be thrilling. (Technically, Harry Reid’s right: “An investigation of the Republican administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes.” Good metaphor. Does this mean they won’t send a pliant Democrat up to co-chair the thing—maybe Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) can reprise his role as Senate stooge?) One can pretty safely assume that FEMA head Michael Brown will take the fall, and George W. Bush will get off scotch-free–he’s just the president after all, not like he’s responsible for anything. One can also assume, though, that the frenzied porkmasters sitting in the House and Senate won’t bother taking a hard look at their own rather significant role in the New Orleans debacle, as reported today by Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post:

In Katrina’s wake, Louisiana politicians and other critics have complained about paltry funding for the Army Corps in general and Louisiana projects in particular. But over the five years of President Bush’s administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large.

Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state’s congressional delegation and approved by the Corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate. Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana’s representatives have kept bringing home the bacon.

For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River — now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project’s congressional godfather — for barge traffic that is less than forecast.

Louisiana has had some mighty politicians in its day, including Democratic “deal-maker” John Breaux, and all of them have steered an impressive amount of money towards Corps projects in their state. But much of that money went towards the sort of largely useless projects, like building a new lock to accommodate barge traffic that wasn’t actually increasing, that have a lot of flash and garner voters, rather than to tedious projects shoring up New Orleans’ hurricane defense and flood control systems. Given that Louisiana’s politicians have, historically, tended to be mostly Democrats, it seems likely that the bipartisan cover-up will point a righteous finger or two their way. But that won’t solve the systemic issues here—namely, that the Army Corps of Engineers is being funded in a largely frivolous manner—with a civil works budget controlled by congressional “earmarks”—that certainly helps politicians get re-elected, but leaves people, quite obviously, in danger.

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