Rant: The Crescent City and the Fiscal Black Hole

How a phantom golf game made a ghost of fiscal responsibility.


True to the presidential tradition of overpromising and underdelivering, the most expensive round of golf in American history was never actually played.

Surely you remember the 18 holes President George W. Bush played while Hurricane Katrina was destroying the city of New Orleans? The one touted by, among others, radio host Randi Rhodes, National Magazine Award-winning columnist Gene Lyons, and a host of left-wing bloggers? The game that so shamed Bush he had to atone by flushing more than $200 billion into the toxic waters of the Delta?

It turns out there was no such round of golf. Hasty anti-Bush partisans were thrown by news that Bush had passed part of August 29 plumping for his Medicare prescription drug benefit at Arizona's El Mirage RV and Golf Resort.

It's not clear why a golf game is more scandalous than an afternoon spent pleading with wrinkly old parasites to accept a $1.2 trillion handout from the government (it certainly would have been cheaper). But the story joined a group of handy mnemonics for the reasonable claim that Bush was out to lunch throughout the Katrina catastrophe (remember the photo of the president laboriously strumming a guitar the day after the mythical golf game?). The only way for Bush to assuage his embarrassment was to spend other people's money by the billion.

Thus, spectators of another exciting sport–the politics of largess–got to see the greatest game never played. In a Rooseveltian mid-September address from New Orleans' Jackson Square, Bush promised everything from immediate assistance to a "Gulf Opportunity Zone" to a virtual blank check for Louisiana officials fabled for their probity.

But there was a problem. Congressional Republicans, led by the maverick Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), saw a chance to clear some governmental deadwood. Pence formed Operation Offset, a coalition aimed at making budget cuts to free up funding for disaster relief.

Under ordinary circumstances, Operation Offset would have been a 15-minute exercise in political theater, but some combination of the spiraling costs of the Iraq war, Bush's sputtering Katrina response, and memories of August's pork-laden highway bill had returned federal waste to center stage. September saw more than 500 news stories on Operation Offset, along with a flurry of articles condemning symbolic pork-barrel projects like the Ketchikan "Bridge to Nowhere" scored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).*

It all came to nothing, of course. In his classic analysis of Washington dysfunction, Government's End, National Journal columnist and Reason contributor Jonathan Rauch coined a term for the phenomenon: "bogus poverty," wherein the multi-trillion-dollar government is a perpetual pauper not for lack of funds but for lack of any constituency willing to sacrifice a pet program for the sake of budgetary flexibility. As a result, new programs simply get built on top of existing ones.

As news organizations and mutinous Republicans chatted up the idea of cutting fat to pay for relief, Young promptly went on the offensive, telling Alaska critics to "kiss my ear" and refusing to give up a penny of the Last Frontier's highway-bill windfall. Following a trip to the woodshed with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Pence emerged to voice his support for the Republican plan to make President Bush a bigger spender than Lyndon B. Johnson.

With his indifferent leadership, his wild spending, and his lousy guitar playing, it's easy to fault Bush for not making a leaderly gesture at fiscal responsibility.

But maybe he was the smart one. Never a president to burn the candle at both ends (he was finishing up a five-week vacation when Katrina hit), Bush probably recognized that in a political climate of bridges that go nowhere, golf games that never occur, and expensive disaster relief that never gets budgeted, planning for budget cuts would just be a wasted stroke.

* An earlier version of this article contained an erroneous title for Rep. Young.