The humorist P.J. O'Rourke famously said, "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." That cynical, libertarian sentiment felt out of step after 9/11, when Washington seemed set to embark on a period of high seriousness of purpose. Nearly five years later, however, it's clear that even homeland-security funding is dangerous in the hands of Washington lawmakers.
The Department of Homeland Security has just announced this year's urban counterterrorism grants. The department was working on the basis of a new funding formula that replaced the old congressionally mandated formula that had more to do with pork-barrel, spread-the-money considerations than sober assessments of risk. But the new formula apparently is even stupider than the old, since it has dictated enormous cuts for the only two cities ever to be hit by Islamic terrorists, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
And so it goes inside the Beltway. It is often difficult to tell which of the many forces driving public policy is foremost at any given time. Is it mere bureaucratic senselessness? Or administrative incompetence? Or rank parochialism? Or flat-out corruption? None of them is good, of course, and their prominence in recent years is why Republicans are sitting atop a powder keg in Washington, in the form of the public's disenchantment with an out-of-touch, dysfunctional and self-serving federal establishment.
If there is an area that one would assume would be immune from Washington business-as-usual, it is homeland security, since the stakes are so high. But money is money, and many members of Congress can't get near it without selfishness twisting their priorities. Republican Rep. Harold Rogers — the congressional equivalent of a drunken teenager if there ever was one — has spent years delaying the creation of a secure identification card for transportation workers by using every opportunity to divert funds to constituents and campaign donors back in his district in Kentucky.
No "emergency" funding bill for the War on Terror or Katrina re-building is ever considered in Congress without it being festooned with senseless local projects meant to serve as campaign advertisements for pork-barreling congressmen. The emergency bills themselves are reckless fictions, since they are addressing entirely predictable needs and are in no sense emergencies. The bills are simply a way to get around normal spending constraints.
If Congress has free-spending parochialism written into its DNA, the executive branch is supposed to be another matter. But look for no relief from the Department of Homeland Security, the blundering bureaucratic monstrosity that is one of Congress' sorriest creations. The funding cuts for Washington and New York are otherworldly by any standard, and indeed DHS officials seem to be living on another planet. DHS thinks that New York City has no "national icons.". Which makes you wonder: Have any DHS officials even visited New York City or watched any movies about it? (King Kong would be surprised to learn that he didn't clamber atop a national icon, only a "tall commercial building.")
Vietnam and Watergate created a sharp decline in confidence in our governing institutions. After a surge in such confidence following 9/11, the Iraq War and the spectacle of the Abramoff-tainted, listless GOP, Congress is writing a new chapter in the history of cynicism about government. Everywhere you look there is more reason to shake your head and wonder, Where is the adult supervision in Washington? Here is the congressional leadership strenuously objecting to the FBI searching a corrupt, cash-grubbing congressman's office. There is the Department of Veterans Affairs losing the personal information of millions of veterans.
Conservatives are supposed to believe in a government that does less rather than more, and that performs its core functions well. Republicans have stumbled on both counts, delivering bloated and incompetent governance. Their political strategy is to hope Democrats get tainted too by their mere presence in Washington. But Republicans should be worried lest voters confiscate their whiskey and car keys.