Frist to the Rescue!

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My, what a large-hearted fellow he is: The Los Angeles Times finds Bill Frist planning to put off a vote on repealing the estate tax in order to make room on the legislative agenda for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Good boy. (One might also note that the estate tax tends to increase charitable giving—perhaps a hike would be appropriate at a time like this. Encourage donations and all. Yes? Frist? No? No, I guess not.)

Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that disaster relief is the sort of situation that just screams out for ultraliberal solutions from Congress. Sad but true. Thousands of families down south, for instance, are sitting on the verge of bankruptcy; why not repeal the recently-passed bankruptcy bill that prevents Americans, who have lost everything through no fault of their own, from making a fresh start? Meanwhile, oil and gas prices are skyrocketing; isn’t it time for a real energy conservation bill? The wreckage from Katrina also seems to call for the sort of investment in infrastructure and public housing that would have the New Dealers grinning in their graves. (Why, even John Podhoretz seems to be hoping for a Keynesian economic recovery spurred on by large public spending rather than tax cuts. Aren’t we all!) One could go on, but at the risk of sounding like a press release, I won’t.

Of course, seeing as how Bill Frist and Tom DeLay control the legislature, and not some mythical benevolent actor, odds are we won’t see any of this. Instead—and this is, oh, just a wild guess—well-connected construction companies will end up receiving lucrative no-bid contracts to do the sort of awe-inspiring work they’ve been carrying out in Iraq. As Josh Marshall says, the billions tossed at Louisiana and Mississippi are going to make for “the biggest slush fund of all time.” Or maybe that’s just overly cynical. Maybe Frist and DeLay really do have the best interests of the public at heart this time. Of course, Congress’ response after Hurricane Andrew doesn’t inspire much confidence—check out this Reason article from 1993:

By the time [George H.W.] Bush and Congress had worn themselves out from stuffing extra goodies into the hurricane aid package, it was $8 billion for Florida alone. The only part that met any resistance was Bush’s proposal to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base, which was nearly closed last year as part of a general military cutback and was expected to be on the next list of bases to shut down. Opposition to the reconstruction of Homestead, however, represented not a heroic burst of political courage but rather an act of shared venality: Several congressmen suddenly sensed the opportunity to save hitherto-doomed bases in their own districts. Closing Homestead meant one less base would have to bite the dust elsewhere.

Virtually every other boondoggle that was suggested was accepted. Special hurricane counseling for the deaf? Sure. Emergency grants to hire performance artists to dress up like Santa Claus? Why not? After all, as one aide to the House Appropriations Committee noted in a widely reprinted quote, “Simply put, our job is to start shoveling bucks south.” Some politicians were positively unhinged by an opportunity to spend money for a cause that was utterly beyond criticism. My favorite was Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston (D), who breezily dismissed questions about who would pick up the tab. “It will be paid for out of the deficit,” Johnston explained. “The deficit is big enough to encompass this too.” All I can say to that is that we here in Miami thank God for prescient public servants like Johnston who were prudent enough to squirrel away a nice large deficit for use on a rainy day.

Expect more of the same. Boondoggles and special favors. Not to mention that this reconstruction endeavor will also be paid for with a nice large deficit squirreled away for a rainy day. By the way, there are early signs that the baronial squabbling has already started. Check out this lede from the AP: “A triumvirate of Republican power brokers may give Mississippi first dibs in the post-Hurricane Katrina grab for federal disaster funds even though the federal government focused its initial response to the storm on New Orleans.” Ah, Republican power brokers…

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