Black Holes

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Bush Administration, Congress, corruption, FEMA, Hurricanes, National Security, Republican Party

Spencer S. Hsu writes for The New York Times,

The Bush administration unconstitutionally denied aid to tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and must resume payments immediately, a federal judge ordered yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a “Kafkaesque” process that began cutting off rental aid in February to victims of the 2005 storms, did not provide clear reasons for the denials, and hindered applicants’ due-process rights to fix errors or appeal government mistakes.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon, a D.C. federal judge, wrote in a 19-page opinion.

“Free these evacuees from the ‘Kafkaesque’ application process they have had to endure,” he wrote.

With FEMA, it’s hard to know how much of this nonsense is incompetence and how much of it is a deliberate strategy to avoid paying money. Possibly both.

As of June, Congress had allocated more than $107 billion “to provide emergency support and assist in longer-term recovery in the Gulf Coast,” according to the Brookings Institution. If you google for information on what has happened to that money, the words waste, fraud, and Byzantine pop up abundantly. In June, Eric Lipton wrote in the New York Times that

Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion. …

… The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.

Awhile back the Justice Department established a Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. Browsing through their news releases gives the impression that the task force is focused exclusively on fraudulent claims for assistance, and certainly there’s plenty of that to keep them busy. Fraud on the part of government contractors, however massive, seems not to be a concern. And the Republican-controlled Congress seems to have done little more than go through the motions of providing oversight.

Let’s hope that’s about to change.

Meanwhile, via The Talking Dog, we find that Homeland Security misdirector Michael Chertoff has admitted that maybe Homeland Security funds are not being allocated sensibly.

Remember how this summer, the Department of Homeland Security reduced the amount of anti-terror funding NYC would get? Sure, NYC was still getting most of the funding, but funds were being increased in less risky areas with, well, influential politicians. And then the press had a field day with how Homeland Security didn’t think there were any national monuments or major buildings at risk? And then Homeland Security claimed that NY State and NYC didn’t file their request properly?

That’s pretty much what FEMA said about the people who’d had their rent aid cut off.

Well, now Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has come out and tacitly stated – though not outright admitting – that the DHS was wrong. The Post reports that at a grand-writing [grant-writing?] conference, Chertoff offered a mea culpa:

    “We’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there was a little too much bean counting and a little less standing back and applying common sense to look at the total picture,” Chertoff told a grant-writing conference.

    “And I’ve heard the complaints about it, looking like we’re playing kind of a pop-quiz type of game with local communities,” he said.

    “They have to try to guess what we’re looking for – and if they guess wrong, they don’t get the money that they think they’re entitled to, and that they may be entitled to.”

The DHS was quick to say that Chertoff isn’t admitting the funding allocation was a mistake, but that “He’s pretty much just saying that this year we will apply some common sense [and] look at the risk in the city.” … Remember, he’s the same man who said that a terrorist attack on a subway is less catastrophic than a terrorist attack on an airplane, because it’s not like subways are connected to large stations or terminals or anything.

From here, it’s hard to know how much tax money given to the DHS (including FEMA) is actually being applied to homeland security, and how much is being sucked into a black hole. It’s also hard to know how much of the bureaucratic “bungling” is really a cover for payoffs, kickbacks, and other less-than-savory uses of taxpayers’ monies.

But I do get a strong impression that a whole lot of that $107 billion meant for Katrina relief and recovery got lost somewhere between Washington DC and the Gulf Coast.

The way the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress budgets and allocates money makes it damn hard to follow that money. The over-use of “emergency” supplemental appropriations has made the official budget something of a joke. Veronique de Rugy writes for Reason Online:

Supplemental spending, “emergency” spending in particular, has become Washington’s tool of choice for evading annual budget limits and increasing spending across the board. Funding predictable, nonemergency needs through supplementals hides skyrocketing military costs and allows Congress to boost regular appropriations for both defense and nondefense programs, thereby enabling the spending explosion of the last five years. …

… The Bush administration has used supplementals to hide the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years in, the Iraq war can hardly be called an emergency or an unpredictable event. This is especially true since one of the largest expenditures goes to the salaries and benefits of Army National Guard personnel and reservists called to active duty. Yet each year President Bush leaves out all war costs when he presents his budget to Congress, knowing that he will be able to secure the funding later through the supplemental process. This year Congress will appropriate nearly 20 percent of total military spending via supplementals.

“Emergency” supplemental spending bills have included monies for hurricane relief and recovery. Congress critters hate to vote against hurricane relief and recovery. But we have no way to know how much of that money, if any, is actually being spent on hurricane relief and recovery.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Swami  •  Nov 30, 2006 @8:01 pm

    I bet Trent Lott got his generous portion of recovery funds. I wonder how his new front porch is looking?

  2. Doug Hughes  •  Nov 30, 2006 @10:17 pm

    The Republican pattern is probably true here. “Relief” efforts were designed not to help victims, but to spread money among favored contractors who will pay back Republican candidates in the form of campaign contributions. My info may be dated, but the last I heard, Katrina Relief was a Rove project. The cutoff of assistance to actual victims fits right in; these folks are hardly likely to contribute to Republican candidates (or vote for Republicans) so they are undeserving of help. Answer: expose in public hearings the extent of the corruption. How much have we paid for how little help and why is the effort so ineffective?

  3. Seattle Man  •  Nov 30, 2006 @11:16 pm

    “If you google for information on what has happened to that money…”

    I wonder how you phrased the queation to Google.

  4. scout prime  •  Dec 1, 2006 @12:15 am

    A September GAO report found there is no tracking mechanism for the $88 billion in Katrina/Rita supplemental funds.
    Link ….http://www.first-draft.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=7510

    Keep in mind they get to that $107B figure by including the flood insuance program which folks in NOLA do not take kindly to having paid premiums for such for years.

  5. scout prime  •  Dec 1, 2006 @12:16 am

    Sorry about that link above

    http://www.first-draft.com/modules.php?
    name=News&file=article&sid=7510

  6. scout prime  •  Dec 1, 2006 @2:18 am

    One other important point. The $107Billion is Allocated funds. We have not Spent $107B. At the one year anniversary only a little over 40% of that allocated had reached the Gulf coast and virtually all of that went to contractors.

    In terms of waste and fraud they’ve focused on individuals and not the big contracts….perhaps the New Congress will take the latter up.

  7. maha  •  Dec 1, 2006 @7:29 am

    I wonder how you phrased the queation to Google.

    I tried several different strings of keywords, NOT including “waste,” “fraud,” and “Byzantine.” Do you have a point?



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