Who's in charge?

By E.J. Dionne Jr. Published:

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Is President Bush the leader of our government, or is he just a right-wing talk show host?

The question comes to mind after Bushs news conference last week in which he sounded like someone who has no control over the government he is in charge of. His words were those of a pundit inveighing against the evils of bureaucrats.

Obviously, said the critic in chief, there are some times when government bureaucracies havent responded the way we wanted them to, and like citizens, you know, I dont like that at all. Yes, and if you cant do something about it, who can?

Bush went on: I mean, I think, for example, of the trailers sitting down in Arkansas. Like many citizens, Im wondering why theyre down there, you know. How come weve got 11,000?

Bush was talking about 10,777 mobile homes ordered up to provide housing for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. As Rep. Mike Ross put it in an interview, most of these brand new, fully furnished homes are sitting in a hay meadow in Hope, Ark., and are a symbol of whats wrong with this administration and whats wrong with FEMA.

Ross, a Democrat, whose district includes that hay meadow, has been running a one-man crusade since last December to get the homes moved to where they could actually provide shelter for those left homeless by the storm. FEMA let the homes sit there because its regulations dont permit the use of such structures in a flood plain.

That raises at least two questions: Why did FEMA spend anywhere from $300 million to $430 million -- the numbers are in dispute -- to buy homes that didnt meet its own regulations? Alternatively, why cant it alter its regulations at least temporarily to use the homes where they are desperately needed?

Nearly three months after Ross first complained about the homes sitting in the field -- and nearly six weeks after Fox News reported the story and CNN broadcast an extensive account -- Bush seemed perplexed. He insisted that he was asking Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to get to the bottom of the deal.

So Ive asked Chertoff to find out, Bush said. What are you going to do with them? The taxpayers arent interested in 11,000 trailers just sitting there. Do something with them. And so I share that sense of frustration when a big government is unable to, you know -- it sends wrong signals to taxpayers. But our people are good, hard-working people.

Hold on: The president of the United States runs the big government hes attacking. This is mysterious. If Bushs good, hard-working people arent responsible for the problem, the villains of the piece must be alien creatures created by some strange beast called Big Government.

Ross reports that 300 of the homes were finally moved last month, and that 5,000 are supposed to be moved soon to Katrina victims. That still leaves a lot of homes. FEMA has said they will be stored for future disasters.

This episode is important because it is representative of a corrosive style of politics. Bush and many of his fellow Republicans have won many elections over the years running against the ills of Big Government. They are so much in the habit of trashing government that even when they are in charge of things -- remember, Republicans have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for all but 18 months since 2001 -- they pretend they are not.

And when their own government fails, they turn around and use their incompetence to argue that government can never work anyway, so you might as well keep electing conservatives to have less government. Its an ideological Catch-22. Even their failures prove they are right.

On the same day Bush was pushing off accountability for the mobile home fiasco, another politician was giving his voters some very bad news -- and taking responsibility for fixing the problem.

Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey announced that his states fiscal situation was a mess and he proposed a budget that simultaneously raised taxes, cut programs and walked away from some of his own campaign promises. New Jerseyans believe that telling the truth is always better than hiding from it, even when it hurts, Corzine, a Democrat, said. And boy, does this budget hurt.

Ill leave it to New Jerseys budget experts to parse the details of Corzines fiscal plan. But its definitely bracing when a politician skips all the rhetoric about big or small government and just tries to fix the thing.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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