- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

Perhaps you’ve heard the one about the 700 firefighters from various 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 Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. No joke. Note to Republicans eager to shovel new money at federal agencies: This is how 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 New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center in the days following Katrina, FEMA contracted for three cruise line ships at a cost of $236 million. But aides for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, calculated and The Washington Post reported, this averaged out to $1,275 per evacuee, each week. A quick glance at the newspaper would reveal a seven-day western Caribbean cruise from Galveston can cost as little as $599 per person. That includes entertainment and the cost of propelling the ship through the water.

How did FEMA get snookered? Well, consider the demands 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 were “full meal service, between-meal snacks, linen and maid service, medical support, and prescription refills.” Superdome evacuees could not be expected to make their own beds or clean their own rooms on 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 on Capitol Hill between 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 nondefense, nonhomeland-security spending (except for the execrable prescription drug bill), but nor did he veto the Christmas tree bills passed by Congress.

If Tom DeLay deserves indictment (and one has 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 Mr. DeLay was one of the few members of Congress of either party who understood and tried to reform the terribly destructive U.S. child welfare system.)

“If you look at fiscal conservatism these days, it’s in a sorry state,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who cast one of only eight votes against the $286.5 billion transportation bill the House passed before the recess. “Republicans don’t even pretend anymore.” Not the leadership anyway.

PoliticalVanguard.com, a California Web site, notes that the total federal budget in 1970 was $195 billion (in noninflation 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 the government can build cities — and should. Worse, they race 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 $1 of existing spending for every $1 of new spending. We could, as Mr. Flake has proposed, delay the effective date Medicare prescription drug plan for one year. That would save $40 billion.

There are thousands of other ripe opportunities. They could begin with the programs they were keenest to eliminate in the misty days of yesteryear (1994). Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101 largest programs Republicans vowed to end in 1995 has grown 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.”

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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