This isn't about pork. It's about heart and keeping official promises. While Congress and the Bush Administration haggle over what should be included in the emergency Gulf War spending bill, the American Gulf Coast finds itself caught in the middle. The bill primarily finances the Iraq War, but it also allocates money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue building a 100-year-level hurricane protection system for southeastern Louisiana.
This is a massive appropriations bill one Beltway source pegs its current price at $250 billion and Louisiana's proposed allocation ($5.8 billion) pales in comparison to the bill's total cost. More important, addressing south Louisiana's hurricane-protection costs will avert delays of the multi-faceted ongoing project.
The good news is that the legislative branch and the executive branch aren't squabbling over whether to keep the Corps' projects going. Both sides support full funding. The House and the Senate each have their own version of the bill, but the Senate's version clearly meets Louisiana's needs better. The Senate bill puts the state's share of the current projects' cost at $1.3 billion and it gives us 30 years to ante up. The House version, which essentially repeats what the president requested for hurricane protection in his Fiscal Year 2009 budget, would require the state to put up $1.5 billion in just three years.
The House version would put undue pressure on any state. It is particularly harsh on Louisiana, which is still recovering from an event that flooded 80 percent of its largest city. Indeed, the higher cost and shorter payment term in the House version would be a bitter pill to swallow, considering the federal government's primary role in causing the post-Katrina, man-made disaster. Although Louisiana currently enjoys a budget surplus that allows it to accelerate coastal restoration and protection projects (lawmakers dedicated $300 million to these efforts in 2008), the House's cost-share allocation and time table could easily drain the state's budget by 2011.
"If the House version passes, Louisiana's coastal restoration efforts will come to a near-complete standstill for the next five years," says Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. That's a bleak picture for a state that loses an estimated 50 acres of wetlands every day. Knowing this, and realizing how critical restoring America's wetlands is to defending the Gulf South against hurricanes, Congress and the president should agree that the Senate version is the better choice not just for Louisiana, but also for America.
Now for the bad news. Although both versions of the supplemental spending bill include some level of continued funding for the hurricane protection system, there is a chance that neither version will become law. The Senate passed its version by a veto-proof vote of 75-22. In order to speed up the process, instead of conferencing the two versions (developing an compromise acceptable to both legislative chambers), House leaders opted to schedule a vote on the Senate version. Before that can occur, however, the House is using the Senate version as a basis for negotiations with the White House. That puts Louisiana's hurricane protection money at risk.
The Senate bill includes a number of domestic spending provisions that the president opposes, and he has threatened to veto any bill that includes those provisions. If that happens, the bill would go back to the House, and the potential for a work stoppage on the hurricane protection system would increase with each passing day. As of press time, the House was furiously trying to craft a bill acceptable to the president with members offering to forgo many of the domestic add-ons. Until the two sides reach an agreement, Louisiana's money is in peril.
In the face of Congress' willingness to compromise, we call on President Bush to step up and keep his word. Just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, he stood in front of a mostly dark and deserted Jackson Square and, in one of his most memorable speeches, pledged to "stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."
No citizens have been more loyal to their city than New Orleanians. We have stood by her through hell and high water. We are rebuilding her even though we are not yet safe from a 100-year storm. We remain optimistic about her prospects, but that optimism is rooted in a presidential promise of a time when all of us can realistically feel more secure. The Corps and Congress promised us 100-year protection by the beginning of the 2011 hurricane season, now less than three years away. We need every day of the next three years to make the president's promise come true.
Mr. President, support the Senate bill. Keep your word. We're tired of waiting.