After Katrina: A Budgetary Blog Swarm

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

The push by President Bush for the federal government to spend $200 billion to recover from Hurricane Katrina has sparked a firestorm of criticism from bloggers on the left and right.

Liberals see the reconstruction plan as an opportunity both to blast Republicans as budgetary hypocrites and to revive their longstanding complaints about Bush’s policies on taxes, war and domestic spending. Fiscal conservatives see the plan as further evidence that Bush is not one of their own. And the two bloggers who spearheaded a successful fundraiser for hurricane relief now have refocused on finding “pork” in the federal budget to help fund the reconstruction.

Liberal bloggers are gleefully noting the irony of a GOP president who preaches fiscal restraint now proposing, with little forethought, a massive spending plan to benefit one small region. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of The Daily Kos called Bush “an LBJ-caliber spendthrift” in two separate posts.

Bush’s liberal critics characterize his plan not as an anomaly but as part of a pattern of fiscal irresponsibility. “As Democrats know and Republicans try to forget,” wrote Neil Sinhababu of The Ethical Werewolf, “this administration has turned the record budget surpluses of the late 1990s into unprecedented budget deficits. We’ve gone from a surplus of $236 billion in 2000 to a $412 billion deficit in 2004.”

They also see a political element to the Katrina relief — one that Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo said is sure to benefit the same types of Bush cronies as the equally misguided spending on the war in Iraq.

“What’s driving this budgetary push is not a natural disaster but a political crisis, the president’s political crisis,” Marshall wrote. “The White House is trying to undo self-inflicted political damage on the national dime. … This will be Iraq all over again, with the same fetid mix of graft, zeal and hubris. Cronyism like you wouldn’t believe.”

Liberal bloggers aren’t opposed to spending federal money on post-hurricane reconstruction; they just want the government to pay for it by “ending tax cuts to the rich” and rebuilding America rather than Iraq.

They also are dead set against GOP proposals like “Operation Offset.” Among other things, that plan targets the prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients as a way to pay for the work in the Gulf Coast. “[T]o expect the Americans most at need to foot the bill while refusing to ask the wealthy to give up their tax cuts is absolutely unconscionable,” Scott Shields wrote at MyDD.

Although driven by different motives, conservative bloggers, meanwhile, clearly are just as aggravated with Bush — but for them the issue is that the president proposed a $200 billion hurricane reconstruction plan without first explaining why that amount is needed and how it would be spent. A GOP Bloggers post headlined “The Era Of Big Government Being Over Is Over” best epitomized their frustration.

Later entries at the same blog indicate that GOP loyalists still have hope for budgetary leadership by their party. But doubts about the costs of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and the Republican Party’s commitment to true conservatism are still apparent.

“As much as it pains me to admit it,” Trevor Bothwell wrote at Democracy Project, “we’re witnessing the consequences of virtual one-party government. Politicians left to their devices are dangerous, and at the end of the day they’re still politicians. It hardly matters which party they belong to. Without a responsible check on spending authority, this is what we’ll see.”

Similar thinking led Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit and N.Z. Bear of The Truth Laid Bear to join forces again in a “PorkBusters” campaign. The mission: Mobilize the blogosphere to identify special-interest spending projects earmarked by politicians who can’t help themselves, reverse that spending, and dedicate it instead to paying for hurricane reconstruction.

It’s the kind of project that cynical Washington insiders — and even some skeptical bloggers — love to mock, and they already have good reason to doubt whether the campaign will work. A quick visit to the PorkBusters page at The Truth Laid Bear shows that “NO CUTS COMMITTED” to hurricane reconstruction and “No Response/Response Pending” or “Negative” response from contacted lawmakers are the dominant themes.

But there are also encouraging signs for Jokers to the Right, Punditeria, The Unalienable Right and the numerous other bloggers on pork patrol for “Glenn’s army.” A few lawmakers, for instance, have said they are open to the idea of forgoing transportation projects in their districts to cover post-hurricane work in the Gulf Coast — and one of them is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

An aide to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., even sent an unsolicited e-mail to one of the PorkBusters bloggers. “I can only assume that the good senator from Oklahoma and his staff have been paying attention to the PorkBuster efforts in the blogosphere, and that’s how my name ended up on an e-mail list,” blogger Nicholas Schweitzer wrote. “I find this very encouraging.”

The bloggers also are not fighting the battle alone. Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation is a key contributor to PorkBusters. Though Instapundit gets the credit for starting the PorkBusters blog swarm, the idea actually originated months ago with Heritage blogger Mark Tapscott, who was inspired by a similar proposal from Heritage President Ed Feulner. Tapscott revisited the issue again in August, just before Katrina hit. Heritage also launched a separate blog called Pork Reports.

Longtime pork foes like Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense also are engaged in the fight, with CAGW urging lawmakers to sign a “Hurricane Katrina No Pork Pledge”. And the mainstream media are publicizing, and even participating in, the PorkBusters campaign.

“To me, the point is to take a step — a small one, granted — toward a culture of greater fiscal responsibility in Washington,” PorkBusters co-general Bear wrote in defense of the project. “If we can hold our representatives on Capitol Hill accountable for the small bits of pork, then perhaps that example will also make them think twice about the larger boondoggles that plague our government.”

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