Do, don't say: Budgets speak louder than apologies

So the buck stops with George W. Bush after all.

On Tuesday, the president ate some crow. "I take responsibility," he said, visibly squirming. And the day before, he got rid of the hapless Michael Brown as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So now that Bush has set a useful precedent, we might ask: Who else is going to apologize, or get fired, for failure? As The Washington Post headline read on Sunday, "Confusion Reigned at Every Level of Government." And maybe something worse than confusion reigned. ABC News reports that on Sept. 2, Rep. William Jefferson, Democrat of New Orleans, diverted government vehicles and manpower from lifesaving rescue work, so that he could travel back to his own house in the flood zone and rescue his personal possessions. Was it a crime for Jefferson to misdirect relief workers from saving lives toward saving his own stuff? Or was it just arrogant?

Speaking of awful behavior, let's not forget the 34 patients who drowned at a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish, just outside New Orleans. The proprietors have been charged with negligent homicide - but does anybody else in the local government have responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry? And while we're at it, did these 34 victims have families who could have come and rescued them? Or is the administration in Washington supposed to take responsibility for these instances of local failure?

It would be great to see all government officials, at every level, held accountable for their past actions, or inactions. But it would be even greater if we could get some "future accountability" - that is, get public officials to think ahead.

Because if there was ever a case of a "predictable surprise," it was the prospect of a big hurricane drowning the 6-feet-under city of New Orleans. As we all know by now, hurricanes come in five categories, the worst being a Category 5. And yet the levees protecting the Crescent City were built only to stop a Cat 3. Which is to say, officialdom should have known that a Katrina-sized hurricane could come along and flood the city at any time, in a year, in a century - or, as it happened, two weeks ago.

So what was going through the minds of our "leaders" as they played the meteorological equivalent of Russian roulette, year after year, with a city of a half-million people? What process of wishful thinking and procrastinating led to this Pearl Harbor-like unpreparedness? The State of Louisiana has a budget of $15 billion a year. Did Pelican State pols really have higher spending priorities than defending their land from deluge?

One way to look at this question is to look at the federal budget. We might note that in 1940, outlays for "physical resources" - public works projects - totaled nearly a quarter of national expenditures. But in 1975, that percentage had fallen to less than 11 percent. And in 2005, it had fallen to barely more than 5 percent. Which is to say, the relative share on public works has fallen by four-fifths. Yes, public works money can be wasted, but if the public agenda lies elsewhere, then Katrina-like disasters are more likely.

So what's grown in the meantime, federal expenditures-wise? What the feds call "human resources" - that is, payments to individuals. From 1940 to 2005, those transfer payments have grown from less than 44 percent of the budget to more than 64 percent.

To put it bluntly, Uncle Sam speaks through his budgetary priorities. For more than half a century, the federal government has downgraded the importance of infrastructure and capital investments, preferring to spend the money instead on an ever-expanding welfare state. Perhaps now those priorities look misplaced.

If Bush would say that, he would have a lot less to apologize for. Instead, he would have some honest and constructive talk to be proud of.

- James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.


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