Perhaps you've heard the one about the 700 firefighters from a variety of states who volunteered to do rescue work following Hurricane Katrina? They sat in a hotel room in Atlanta for days getting sexual harassment training from FEMA officials. No joke. Note to Republicans eager to shovel new money at federal agencies: This is the way government works.
Now there's more news that ought to be, but isn't, a joke. Casting about for a place to temporarily house the people stuck in the Superdome and convention center in the days following Katrina, FEMA contracted with a cruise line to provide three ships at a cost of $236 million. But as aides for Sen. Tom Coburn calculated and The Washington Post reported, this averaged out to a rate of $1,275 per evacuee, per week. A quick glance at the newspaper would reveal that a seven-day western Caribbean cruise embarking from Galveston can go for as little as $599 per person. And that includes entertainment and the cost of actually propelling the ship through the water.
How did FEMA get snookered? Well, just consider the demands the agency made on would-be suppliers. Apparently, after a one-day competition, the agency received bids from 13 ships -- but only four met FEMA's requirements. Among these necessities were "full meal service, between-meal snacks, linen and maid service, medical support, and prescription refills." People evacuated from the Superdome could not be expected to make their own beds or clean their own rooms aboard an all-expenses-paid cruise ship? They had to have between-meal snacks? Sigh. As it happens, the ships sit half empty in the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay.
There is now a full-scale battle underway on Capitol Hill between the Republicans who still bravely soldier on for limited government and the Republican leadership that has gone native. The Republican Congress has increased spending by 33 percent since George W. Bush took office. The president did not request huge increases in non-defense, non-homeland security spending (with the exception of the execrable prescription drug bill), but neither did he veto the Christmas trees passed by Congress. If Tom DeLay deserves indictment (and one has one's doubts, considering the Texas prosecutor's history of sucker punches), it should be for the grotesque spending he has overseen. (More is the pity as DeLay was one of the few members of Congress of either party who understood and attempted to reform the terribly destructive child welfare system in the United States.) "If you look at fiscal conservatism these days, it's in a sorry state," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of only eight House members to vote against the $286.5 billion transportation bill that was passed the day before the recess. "Republicans don't even pretend anymore." Not the leadership anyway.
PoliticalVanguard.com, a California website, notes that the total federal budget in 1970 was $195 billion (in non-inflation adjusted dollars) -- nominally less than the Republican-controlled Congress and president are now projected to spend on hurricane relief alone.
But it is not the sheer volume of spending that is most dismaying. It is the complete cave-in by Republicans on the proper role of the state. Suddenly we have Republicans accepting the premise that the government can build cities -- and should. Worse, they are racing heedlessly to spend on the Gulf Coast without any time for reflection about what went wrong or plans to avoid the exact same catastrophe in the future. Responsible government? A high school civics class could do better.
At the same time, there is an insurgency. The Republican Study Committee in the House along with a number of senators has launched the seemingly modest "Operation Offset," which merely proposes to cut one dollar of existing spending for every one dollar of new spending. We could, as Rep. Flake has proposed, delay implementation of the Medicare prescription drug plan for one year. That would achieve a savings of $40 billion. There are thousands of other ripe opportunities. They could begin with the programs they were most keen to eliminate back in the misty days of yesteryear (1994). Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101 largest programs Republicans vowed to eliminate in 1995 has grown by 27 percent.
The Republican leadership badly needs a wake-up call. Not from the likes of Ronnie Earle but from the grass roots. They might say, as Cromwell once did to a self-satisfied parliament, "In the name of God, go."