'We should lead by example and give up a few of the things we want in order to give hurricane victims the things they need," Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn told their colleagues. Correct, as far as it goes, but the call to arms rings hollow without specifics. Here's a start: Congress should redirect the transportation bill's $25 billion toward hurricane relief.
Congress appropriated $51.8 billion in emergency-relief money for Hurricane Katrina's victims, and suspended the normal rules and procedures so the bill would not get entangled in special interests or endless debates. That made sense; lives were at stake and the money was needed at once. But Congress can listen now to those who want to cut discretionary spending so money can be sent for reconstruction in the Gulf states. Congress could erase half that total with the transportation bill earmarks.
Before Katrina, these earmarks were hardly necessary; today, they look like an abdication of duty. As we noted last month, the most outrageous items in this $286 billion bill were $229 million for a highway called "Don Young's Way" in Alaska, a favorite of the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee; $18.75 million for the "Highway to Nowhere," linking Ketchikan, Alaska, to the island of Gravina, population 50; and $20 million for a Magnetic Levitation Transportation System linking Las Vegas and Primm, Nev. Naturally the guilty legislators defended these projects as necessary spending on vital local needs. Of course.
These projects look particularly foolish now. Katrina has blown the roof off business as usual in Washington, and rightly so.
Several congressmen appear to get it. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, offered an amendment to the hurricane-relief bill that would have required the House to offset the new Katrina spending with reductions in other spending. Mr. Hensarling, a fiscal conservative, isn't above pragmatism: He would exempt entitlements, homeland-security and defense spending and veteran's affairs from the cuts. But the House didn't consider his amendment because it wanted speedy passage of the relief legislation.
Now that the emergency bill has been enacted, Congress should reconsider ideas like the Hensarling amendment. And if Mr. McCain and Mr. Coburn are serious about leading by example, they will step up to lead by example. Congress can show seriousness by scrapping Mr. Young's "Highway to Nowhere" and send the money to the right somewhere -- to rebuild New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.