Legislative Lowdown: Week of October 3

Lawmakers from Louisiana and Mississippi have proposed a breathtaking legislative package of disaster assistance for the Gulf Coast region. Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (D.) and David Vitter (R.) introduced the PELICAN (Protecting Essential Louisiana Infrastructure, Citizens and Nature) plan, which would deliver up to $250 billion in taxpayer funds to an impeccable class of money managers—Louisiana’s elected officials and bureaucrats—for a lobbyist-inspired cornucopia of lavishly endowed recovery efforts.

In a breathtaking display of parochial self-interest, the “L” in PELICAN stands for “Louisiana.” Every dollar would go to Louisiana, and not one penny for the beleaguered residents of Mississippi, Alabama or Texas.

A sampling of the proposed largesse includes:

  • $5 billion for mortgage relief for Louisiana homeowners.
  • $1 billion for medical services for veterans and $500 million for the reconstruction of a veterans hospital in New Orleans.
  • $400 million for substance abuse and mental health services.
  • $750 million to Louisiana’s education bureaucrats for a “teacher incentive fund.”
  • $90 million for Louisiana oyster recovery, $150 million for the state’s fisheries, $150 million for the recovery of the fisheries’ infrastructure, and $35 million to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board “to rebuild the market for seafood products in fisheries impacted by Katrina.”

Under PELICAN, moreover, welfare recipients would not be expected to play a constructive role in the recovery. All work requirements and limits on how long benefits could be received would be summarily waived.

As if the PELICAN plan weren’t enough, Rep. Gene Taylor (D.-Miss.) is soliciting support for the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Flood Insurance Buy-in Act of 2005. Taylor wants to allow residents in the affected Gulf Coast, who consciously chose to forgo federal flood insurance, to purchase it retroactively and receive full coverage under the federal flood insurance program. Taylor’s bill is akin to allowing a person to choose a lottery ticket after the drawing. It would establish a dangerous precedent for all future disasters.

The most insightful criticism of these and other legislative responses to Katrina and Rita came from Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), who wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal: “In the wake of Katrina/Rita, we risk setting an … unsustainable precedent that it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that victims of natural disasters are made whole.” Flake observes rightly that “after the next tornado in Kansas or wildfire in Arizona, these communities will assert similar claims on the nation’s Treasury.” Faced with these precedents, Flake frets that “a compassionate Congress will have no right to ignore their petition.”

Fat Watch

Members of Congress looking to remove fat from the federal budget should take a long, hard look at the hundreds of millions of dollars Uncle Sam spends each year sending federal workers to conferences and workshops.

The Senate’s leading fiscal hawk, Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.), has learned that last year six federal cabinet agencies—the Departments of Energy, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Labor—and the Environmental Protection Agency together spent $104.5 million for conference-related travel, hotel stays and meals. Often, these agencies sent entire planeloads of employees to conferences. One agency, for example, sent 175 federal workers to a conference in San Antonio. Another sent 150 to a June confab in Augusta, Ga.

With several large agencies yet to respond, including the Departments of Agriculture, State, Interior, Justice, Defense and Commerce, it appears Uncle Sam’s annual travel and entertainment tab may exceed $250 million. To those in search of spending cuts to offset the mounting costs of Katrina, the government’s travel budget offers an easy way to put that first $100 million or so on the table.

Another source of promising Katrina offsets comes in the realm of foreign aid. According to data compiled by my Heritage Foundation colleagues Brett Schaefer and Anthony Kim, over the past four sessions of the UN General Assembly, 86% of nations receiving assistance from U.S. taxpayers voted against the official U.S. position a majority of the time. Eighteen of these countries received annual payments of $100 million or more. Again, this is another area where hundreds of millions of budget savings are within the ready grasp of Congress.