WASHINGTON – President Bush is taking lots of heat from Republicans on the Hill after pledging to rebuild New Orleans following its ravaging by Hurricane Katrina, a massive public-works project analysts expect will cost upward of $250-$300 billion. However, their malcontent is as misguided as it is disingenuous.

GOP critics are calling Bush’s plan “the new New Deal,” in reference to a range of costly, big-government projects developed and approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ruling Democrats during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Their comparison might be accurate but for a few facts: One, the president is right to make the commitment; and two, it’s not a project designed to put an out-of-work nation back on the payroll.

Bush reminded his critics earlier this week that by law and by precedent, the federal government is responsible for shouldering most of the cost of rebuilding damaged or destroyed infrastructure. It is hard to argue the fact that the infrastructure destroyed by Hurricane Katrina – oil and port facilities, docks, shipping facilities, highways – are, as the president says, vital to this country, both in terms of national and economic security. Few of us conservatives are comfortable with that kind of massive government expenditure, but in this case it’s unavoidable.

However, though the president can and should be let off the hook for committing taxpayer resources to the salvaging of one of our nation’s most important cultural and trade centers, neither he nor the GOP hypocrites blasting him now have anyone to blame for this costly mess but themselves.

This is the same GOP-controlled Congress that sent President Bush a massive pork-barrel highway and transportation bill just a few months ago, and it is the same Congress that has gone along with this president in committing America to spending a couple hundred billion dollars (so far) fighting a terror war that is currently bogged down in Iraq.

Throw into that mix increased expenditures for a range of social programs, education, government-mandated health care and other recurring line items, and you can begin to see why congressional Republicans have no right to now howl about reconstructing New Orleans: If they are wondering where the money went to fund a project that must be undertaken, they can look at next year’s pork-laden budget – that is, if they have the strength to lift it.

Republicans, like Democrats before them, have spent themselves silly, engaging in a fiscal orgy of epic proportions while basking in their status as majority party. Nobody did much disaster planning, economically or otherwise.

When they should have been cutting the budget – as they have promised for years they would do if they ever got into power – they have expanded it exponentially. Now, not only is it the largest in U.S. history, it doesn’t contain any funding for emergencies and disasters. Failing to recognize – especially after 9-11 – the nation could find itself on the receiving end of a costly, unforeseen event is the mother of all shortsightedness.

We did get tax cuts – a good, solid conservative move on a promise delivered by Bush during his first campaign. But those tax cuts were supposed to coincide with budget cuts, but majority Republicans didn’t cut spending, they increased it.

Meanwhile, the bills just kept rolling in, as our rising federal budget deficit will attest, until now, in a fit of desperation and in an effort to take the heat off themselves, some Republicans are whining about cutting the budget.

Too little, too late, as usual.

As much as many conservatives want to simply eliminate all government entitlements and social spending – Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, child health – it’s not feasible and it certainly is not a process that can be accomplished overnight. Generations of Americans have long been dependent on these programs, and you can’t just cut them off. If you thought the chaos in New Orleans was bad, try multiplying it by millions and spreading it out over dozens of U.S. cities – there is nothing worse than a welfare recipient scorned.

One of the fastest growing line items has been military spending – and understandably so – but we can’t cut much here because we have troops in the field. We could and should, however, scrap – for the time being – the Pentagon’s plans to buy dozens of $350 million-per-copy fighter planes and instead use those savings to bolster state National Guard forces, homeland defense and internal security.

Other than that, the options are few. Pray tell, then, what are poor legislators to do?

What they always do in a fiscal pinch – deficit-spend.

The administration is not about to recommend tax hikes, so, the only real option in the search for funds is to add hundreds of billions more in red ink. And that might be OK for the short term, but only if we already had balanced books and entitlement expenditures under control.

We have neither.

Our Republican “leaders” have mimicked their Democratic rivals and spent this nation into a corner. They have put themselves – and the rest of us as well – between an economic rock and a hard place.

Lack of vision must be a legislative prerequisite in Washington because no one seems capable of realizing it is wise and prudent to save for a rainy day.

And boy, is it raining now.

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