Friday, September 09, 2005

To Hume It May Concern

Yesterday's Washington Post contains a good article by Michael Grunwald about recent history and funding of Army Corps projects in Louisiana. Some of the information in this article reinforces the case that the Bush administration did a poor job in preparing for the impact of a hurricane on New Orleans, a city uniquely vulnerable to a natural disaster. Other pieces of information in the article provide context that puts the Bush administration in a better light. At least, the article does make Citizen Cain reconsider his previous position that the Bush administration did a lesser job of maintaining levees in New Orleans than its predecessor. Maybe it did; maybe it didn't. We need more information (more on this below). Nothing in the article, I should add, undermines the conclusion that the Bush administration was negligent in preparing for and conducting relief operations.

Start with the information that puts Bush in a bad light:

Louisiana's politicians have requested much more money for New Orleans hurricane protection than the Bush administration has proposed or Congress has provided. In the last budget bill, Louisiana's delegation requested $27.1 million for shoring up levees around Lake Pontchartrain, the full amount the Corps had declared as its "project capability." Bush suggested $3.9 million, and Congress agreed to spend $5.7 million.

Administration officials also dramatically scaled back a long-term project to restore Louisiana's disappearing coastal marshes, which once provided a measure of natural hurricane protection for New Orleans. They ordered the Corps to stop work on a $14 billion plan, and devise a $2 billion plan instead.

So the Bush administration slashed funding for projects that, while they may not have saved New Orleans from disaster, could have helped limit the damage. But Grunwald also points out that while the Louisiana congressional delegation asked for more money for flood control, they also asked for more money for all sorts of Army Corps projects, including highly questionable navigation projects. So Louisiana legislators deserve blame, along with the Bush administration, past administrations, and the Army Corps generally, for failing to prioritize projects that would protect New Orleans. Louisiana politicians seem to have treated the Corps as a piggy bank for public works projects, without a lot of careful thought about what was worth funding and what wasn't.

Tim Searchinger, an attorney with Environmental Defense, puts it well:
It has been explicit national policy not to set priorities, but instead to build any flood control or barge project if the Corps decides the benefits exceed the costs by 1 cent . . . [snip] Saving New Orleans gets no more emphasis than draining wetlands to grow corn and soybeans.
This approach, in fairness, seems to long pre-date the Bush administration, though it would be interesting to know if one administration or the other was better on this score.

Furthermore, the Post story reports that "overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years." Interesting, but more context is needed. Bush slashed the funding the Corps requested for levees around Ponchartrain. Did Clinton similarly slash Corps requests, or were these projects still in the planning stages and not yet ready for significant funding? Citizen Cain doesn't know. If the Clinton adminstration provided all the funding that the Corps could usefully spend on New Orleans flood control projects at the time, then surely it was acting more responsibly than the Bush administration. Moreover, we have heard recently about studies and reports beginning in 2001 that identified a New Orleans levee break caused by a hurricane as one of the most worrisome potential disasters to face the United States. Was this fully understood prior to 2001? If not, this would tend to put the Clinton administration in a better light in comparison with the Bush administration, who was warned that New Orleans levees ought to be a priority.

The Post story is a good start, but we need a fuller accounting of how different administrations have approached flood protection for New Orleans, given the different contexts of different times. Given his good work on yesterday's story, Citizen Cain gives this assignment to Grunwald. Citizen Cain, however, forbids Britt Hume from working on this story.

Yesterday, Hume continued his disgraceful attempts to defend the Bush administration against charges that it failed to adequately prepare for and respond to Katrina. In his Special Report, Hume said:

Democrats, and some former government engineers, blamed President Bush for cutting the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming the cuts left New Orleans unprepared for a major storm.

But The Washington Post reports the Bush administration has granted the corps more funding than the previous administration over a similar period and that Louisiana has received far more money for civil works projects than any other state. The paper says much of the funding has been spent not on flood control, but on lawmakers' pet construction projects, including a brand new $750 million canal lock in New Orleans unrelated to flood control.

Notice how Hume makes it appear as if the Post article fully exonerates the Bush administration. He leaves out mention of the slashes in Army Corps requests for flood control in New Orleans. Moreover, he uses a bizarre construction to imply that the President's role is to "grant" funding to government agencies, while Congress determines how the money is spent. "[T]he Bush administration has granted the corps more funding," but sadly "much of the funding has been spent not on flood control, but on lawmakers' pet construction projects, including a brand new $750 million canal lock in New Orleans unrelated to flood control."

See? Bush "granted" the money, but lawmakers spent it unwisely. Beyond this bizarre portrayal of how government budgets work, Hume manages to imply that Bush wanted to spend more on flood protection, but was thwarted by congress. As Grunwald makes clear, this implication is completely false.