The Case for a Cover-Up

By JOHN TIERNEY

New York Times

September 10, 2005

At last there is a light in the darkness. Washington was slow to respond to Katrina's victims, but now Congress has finally sprung into action. It has bravely promised to investigate the situation.

Unfortunately, the members haven't figured out exactly how, because Democrats want it to be done by outsiders. They say the Republicans will turn it into a cover-up. But why does that bother the Democrats so much? Shouldn't members of both parties want to cover this up?

Suppose, for instance, investigators try to find out who had the brilliant idea of putting the Federal Emergency Management Agency inside a new department with an organizational chart modeled on the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture and Food Economy. One Democrat, Hillary Clinton, did question whether FEMA would suffer, but the idea was originally championed by her colleagues, particularly Joe Lieberman.

Mr. Lieberman joined Mrs. Clinton this week in calling for a "re-examination" of FEMA's status, but he was against independence before he was for it. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he helped lead the charge to create the Department of Homeland Security.

Republicans first resisted, as the Democratic National Committee pointed out during the presidential campaign last year. Its radio advertisement declared: "John Kerry fought to establish the Department of Homeland Security. George Bush opposed it for almost a year after 9/11."

Or suppose the investigators try to find out why the Army Corps of Engineers didn't protect New Orleans from the flood. Democrats have blamed the Iraq war for diverting money and attention from domestic needs. But that hasn't meant less money for the Corps during the past five years. Overall spending hasn't declined since the Clinton years, and there has been a fairly sharp increase in money for flood-control construction projects in New Orleans.

The problem is that the bulk of the Corps's budget goes for projects far less important than preventing floods in New Orleans. And if the investigators want to find who's responsible, they don't have to leave Capitol Hill.

Most of the Corps's budget consists of what are lovingly known on appropriations committees as earmarks: money allocated specifically for members' pet projects. Many of these projects flunk the Corps's own cost-benefit analysis or haven't been analyzed at all. Many are jobs that Corps officials don't even consider part of their mission, like building sewage plants, purifying drinking water or maintaining lakeside picnic tables.

The Corps is giving grants to improve New York City's drinking water. In Massachusetts, the Corps offers BMX-style bike jumps at a lake near Worcester and runs a theater next to the Cape Cod Canal showing a video of "Canal Critters."

In rural Nevada, an area not known for hurricanes or shipping channels, the Corps has been given $20 million for construction projects. When I asked an official why so much was being spent in Nevada, he said that the money was paying for wastewater treatment and mentioned the name of Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat's leader in the Senate.

"Senator Reid is a great and good man," the Corps official explained, "and he is on our committee."

This week Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat, lambasted Mr. Bush on the Senate floor. "Everybody anticipated the breach of the levees, Mr. President," she said. But she and others from the Louisiana delegation have been shortchanging the levees themselves. As Michael Grunwald reported in The Washington Post, they've diverted large sums to dubious Corps projects aimed at increasing barge traffic, not preventing floods. Ms. Landrieu forced the Corps to redo its calculations when a project to deepen a port flunked its cost-benefit analysis.

Would Congressional investigators focus on these pork-barrel projects? I would guess not. My daring prediction is they would make two discoveries. First, that mistakes were made by many people outside Congress. Second, that more money must be spent on flood protection throughout America.

A few outside skeptics may suggest letting this money be spent by mayors and governors in flood-prone areas who can lose their jobs if they earmark it for too many boondoggles and allow disasters to occur. But members of Congress would conclude that only they can be trusted to dispense the money. Of course, should there be another flood somewhere, they would be glad to investigate.