WASHINGTON – On the Fox News Channel this week, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity lectured Sen. David Vitter that he was “shocked and outraged” that “you politicians in Louisiana” are exploiting the Hurricane Katrina tragedy by “trying to get every tax dollar for every pork-barrel project.”

On C-SPAN, a caller from Buffalo, N.Y., said he feared the hurricane relief money being funneled to Louisiana through the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be wasted by “corrupt and incompetent” government officials in Louisiana and New Orleans.

An editorial in The Oregonian, the Portland-based newspaper, says Louisiana officials “seem all too eager to capitalize on public sympathy” with a “rich gumbo” of spending proposals, some unrelated to the hurricane. The editorial continues: “Louisiana’s history of corruption, paired with FEMA’s organizational troubles and the Bush administration’s habit of awarding no-bid contracts, should put taxpayers on alert.”

While the Bush administration and many members of Congress still are committed to providing a lucrative redevelopment package for Louisiana and Mississippi, there is growing cynicism about the amounts of money being proposed, including the $250 billion in aid specified in legislation introduced last week by Louisiana’s two senators, Republican Vitter and Democrat Mary Landrieu.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said despite grumbling on and off Capitol Hill, Louisiana should do quite well with federal aid. “The devastation is so great and the stories of the victims have united Americans in sympathy,” he said.

But he warns that “there is a palpable fear that many millions, if not billions, will be wasted through graft and corruption.” While Sabato said he understands the decision by Landrieu and Vitter to “strike while the iron is hot” with a far-reaching and expensive proposal, in retrospect their effort “looks greedy.”

In his appearance on the Fox News Channel, Vitter responded to Hannity’s criticism of his and Landrieu’s Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act by inviting Hannity and his liberal co-host, Alan Colmes, to visit Louisiana so they could see the devastation firsthand.

“We’re talking about an entire major American metropolitan area that has been completely dislocated, completely evacuated,” Vitter said. “Last time that happened in American history was the Civil War. Obviously, American cities were a lot smaller then.”

Landrieu said that the legislation is intended to provide a broad outline of Louisiana’s needs and that she and Vitter realize that some provisions will be revised or rejected.

“We recognize that it’s a very high number,” Landrieu said of the $250 billion bill. “But I guess part of introducing this package and doing it unified in our delegation is to say this is an unprecedented natural disaster, a national tragedy. And it’s going to take an unprecedented response.”

Vitter said he’s been meeting with Senate committee chairs about individual priority items within the legislation and has received a generally favorable response.

Still, advocates for restoring Louisiana’s coastline worry that the Senate bill offered by Landrieu and Vitter will generate opposition because it is so broad and covers items not related to the coast or to protecting the state from future hurricanes, such as upgrading ports in New Iberia and Fourchon.

“How can we expect the nation to believe us that we need these projects to save the coastal wetlands that are vital to ourselves and to the nation, when we ask for a blank check and no oversight over $200 billion packed with projects that have nothing to do with either flood protection of the city of New Orleans or restoring the coast?” asked Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said he was upset the delegation worked with lobbyists to write their bill, rather than experts who could offer innovative solutions for hurricane protection and coastal restoration. Vitter said he and other delegation members relied on a wide range of experts.

Some members of Congress will insist on the appointment of a chief financial officer to ensure that hurricane relief spending isn’t wasteful. Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the Senate’s most conservative members, this week joined with liberal Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to complain about the awarding of a six-month, $192 million contract to Carnival Cruise lines that they say costs the government four times as much to house a Katrina evacuee as a vacation passenger.

Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., said he would like to see some well respected manager, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell or former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, oversee the redevelopment effort. Vitter said he has already submitted some possible candidates to the White House.

Jindal said Louisiana House members have decided to pursue individual bills to rebuild New Orleans rather than the kind of single giant bill proposed by Landrieu and Vitter. But he said the delegation was unified across party lines to build support for the redevelopment help southern Louisiana needs.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional and political expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that the American public doesn’t have much patience for stories about wasted spending or corruption.

“Any spate of news stories from now on about corruption in contracts, etc., will hurt – people will resist a major taxpayers’ commitment if they think much of it will be wasted or lining the pockets of miscreants,” Ornstein said. “That perception, unfortunately, has been reinforced by the delegation request, which editorials have called “Louisiana looting.’ The delegation needs to change its tone and strategy when it comes to getting aid.”


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