Rebuilding After Katrina: Pork and Tax Cuts

The figure being bandied about is $200 billion, but it's not just hard dollar figures that are at issue here. What will the cost be to education? To our children and grandchildren? To key social programs from Head Start to Medicare? To the troops in Iraq who already don't have enough armor (among other vital resources)?

Sen. Robert Byrd makes the case forcefully in the Baltimore Sun that, with the added financial strain from Katrina reconstruction, it's time for America to get out of Iraq. In addition to needing our Guardsmen here at home to be first responders in the event of a disaster, the bottom line, Byrd argues, is that we simply cannot afford to keep spending billions on the conflict.

But is that realistic? At least among lawmakers, Byrd probably won't be able to make that sale. So where will the money come from? Editorials and op-eds -- as well as politicians -- are zeroing in on two areas: the Bush tax cuts and Congressional pork.

The recently-passed transportation bill doesn't bode well for Bush's ability to stand up to congressional porkbarrelling. Indeed, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan writes, "When Congress serves up a big slab of fat, crackling pork, Mr. Bush responds with one big question: Got any barbecue sauce?" The best example of this? The infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."

Paul Campos writes in the Rocky Mountain News about the "Bridge to Nowhere" being built in Alaska for a quarter of a billion dollars. (Clarification: It is, technically, a bridge to somewhere, insofar as "somewhere" is defined as "a place that exists." But it's an itty-bitty island with an itty-bitty population and an itty-bitty airport that Campos reports has just seven commercial flights a day and can be reached by a seven-minute ferry trip. Though I am no great proponent of Congressional term limits, it's this sort of frivolous reward for seniority -- the island is in the district of House transportation committee chair Rep. Don Young -- that could change my mind.) Campos points to a Heritage Foundation estimate that the bill contained at least $25 billion of pure pork. Right there, that's one-eighth of the money needed for reconstruction efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

"Countless families have sacrificed by donating their money and time to the relief effort; lawmakers ought to be able to give up a pet project here and there," reads a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial. But, the Inquirer says, cutting pork alone won't be enough, and "it's clear that most of the money for Katrina's cleanup will be borrowed, and that fact calls for adjusting the nation's long-range budget picture. The President had on his budget blinders when he said last week that tax increases are not an option." (As Rob Corddry put it on the Daily Show last night, "it's a faith-based approach" to funding the reconstruction -- faith in an economic model that rules out eliminating frivolous tax cuts.)

The Inquirer asks: "Can we at least talk about rescinding some scheduled tax cuts, which would overwhelmingly favor high-income earners?"

On Jan. 1, two tax cuts that are targeted toward families in the million-dollar-a-year income range -- families that, the editorial explains, already save about $100,000 per year thanks to Bush's earlier tax cuts. Jettisoning the two new cuts would save the government about $20 billion per year. "Further, the Senate ought to kill plans to permanently repeal the estate tax, which would benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of households. If enacted, this tax cut would drain the Treasury of about $70 billion per year."

Props to the Inquirer for setting out the tax cut costs. The estate tax alone could pay for reconstruction in about three years, yet Bush still wants to get rid of it for good, just to save his rich buddies from an inheritance tax? (Are we trying to return to the days of the landed gentry? Might as well bring back colonial laws insisting property be passed down to the first-born son, while we're at it.)

It should be noted that the chairman of the Senate budget committee, Judd Gregg, has not ruled out tax increases, according to The Hill newspaper. Other GOP members of Congress are reconsidering their intentions to extend the capital gains and dividends tax cuts. The conservative (and wealthy) Wall Street Journal editorial board is devastated.

The Oregonian's editorial board goes a bit further than the Inquirer, saying that the tax cuts should be the first thing on the chopping block. They imply that those seemingly porky transportation projects actually could be good for states. (I would add here that if forced to make a choice, it seems wiser to spend money for highway projects that at least create jobs for those who most need them than to help the wealthiest among us save more and more on their taxes.)

The newspaper does some math: $200 billion for Katrina + $200 billion for Iraq + Excessive borrowing from overseas (we'll save China's financing of our exploits for a later post) = Undermining the economic security of the United States. Our economic security is already tenuous, given our dependence on oil, particularly oil supplied by less-than-democratic/not-entirely-stable regimes -- a subject we'll address in more detail tomorrow.

Continuing to borrow billions (even trillions) of dollars is not a viable option, the Oregonian argues. "Foisting the financial burden of Katrina and Iraq on future generations would be fiscally obscene."

Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker sees Bush's proposals for reconstruction as more than just dollar signs. She suggests that Bush's envisions the post-Katrina rebirth of New Orleans and the rest of the devastated Gulf Coast as a place where he can use his power to help the poor attain self-sufficiency, living in Habitat-for-Humanity built homes on land given to them by the federal government, raising happy children going to good schools thanks to a broad vouchers program.

This is a lovely thought, to be sure. But, she says, reality might put a damper on things. "In an uncynical world where money is no obstacle -- the world in which Bush grew up -- the president is, indeed, a visionary with big ideas. In the real world, where a relaxed focus is more likely to reveal a devastated landscape than a fairy prince's fantasy, he's going to need more than the luck of the well-born."

What do you think? Is Bush wisely moving people away from a culture of dependency on the government? Or is he spending recklessly where temporary expansions of established programs, like Medicaid, would do a better job? (See David Broder's excellent op-ed on the fight over Medicaid for evacuees.) Does Bush's refusal to consider scaling back some of those monstrous tax cuts for the wealthy put the final nail in the coffin of the Republicans' increasingly spurious that they're fiscal conservatives? Bush says they'll cut "unnecessary" spending to pay for the reconstruction. Where should he be looking to find that $200 billion in unnecessary spending?

By Emily Messner |  September 22, 2005; 10:11 AM ET  | Category:  Beltway Perspectives
Previous: We're Spending Billions on Katrina Rebuilding -- How About a Few Million for Disaster Preparedness? | Next: Rethinking Reconstruction As the Levees Give Way

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Just a reminder - when asked about his $200 million dollar bridge to nowhere, Don Young announced everyone could "kiss his ear". This is a bridge that the Alaskan transportation officials and the island residents themselves want no part of; this is a bridge almost the size of the Golden Gate in San Francisco, connecting the mainland to an 8,000-resident island that is perfectly content with the five-minute ferry ride already extant. Alaskan officials themselves state that no commuting time will be saved by using the bridge in any case.

My God, the sheer, audacious waste is mind-boggling! Even more so - the fact that we haven't heard hardly a peep from most Congresspeople on the pork problem. Am I surprised? Of course not. Everyone knows this Congress and administration are out to look for number one. But one would hope, nevertheless, that they'd have some small modicum of decency and common sense, especially in these perilous times.

Have we heard reprimands or practical solutions from the President on this issue? Of course not. We haven't seen any sort of true leadership from him since the days right after 9/11, and all signs are he's perfectly content to leave the deficit problem until long after he leaves office.

I would like to know what conservative Republicans who support Bush think about this issue - I'm genuinely curious. The actions of this administration by all accounts fly directly in the face of traditional Republican party beliefs, setting aside the right's self-perceived moral superiority. I have yet to hear any loud cries of protest from the leadership of this party about this tax-cut-and spend government. Why?

I don't exclude the Democratic Party from their responsibility in any way; both parties are equally adept at spreading the bacon around nowadays. But the Democrats aren't the party in control of the executive and legislative branches. The country is waiting for the party who broke the nation's economy to fix it - or at least admit that the fiscal irresponsibility happened under their watch.

Posted by: Mary Eliz | September 23, 2005 08:36 AM

i agree.

Posted by: mjc | September 23, 2005 05:19 PM

The word Kamikaze means in Japanese, the "divine wind".

It was famous for the suicide squadrons organized by the Japanese air force in the World War II.

The term was first applied in the history by grateful Japanese to a typhoon that destroyed an invasion fleet in 1281. It was revived in 1945 and applied to pilots who flew their aircraft, loaded with explosives, directly into U.S targets.Which calls us the "towers" suddenly hit in the us, in the same style in 2001.Before the date, nearly ten years, the us government officials discussing in heat about the inflated trade surplus of Japanese economy. Japanese was very angry with the world trade officials.

Posted by: christ christopher/japan-Tokio | September 29, 2005 04:17 PM

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