The Real Looting Has Just Begun

09/27/2005 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rita has shed her last rainfall over the Mississippi Valley. But the looting of America has only just begun. And we're not talking about plasma television sets here, much less loaves of bread. We're talking about putting the whole American dream up at a fire sale. It appears that our leaders want to show the apparatchiks who presided over the "privatization" scandals of the Soviet bloc what real greed looks like.

They began before the floodwaters had even stopped roaring into New Orleans. Bidding rules were suspended, as always, for Halliburton (I wonder if Halliburton even has a department that can prepare bids for contracts!) and for other companies well-connected to the politicians who, ostrich-like, had let every community asset in the Gulf Coast be pounded to splinters. (The latest, and apparently biggest, is AshBritt, a firm based in Pompano Beach, Florida, that is closely connected to Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and that got $568 million to remove debris at a rate of $15/cubic yard -- a price widely dismissed as outrageous by local officials.)

After bidding rules were dumped, on the grounds that in an emergency you couldn't expect contractors to do work for normal prices (it costs more, after all, in a crisis), fair wages went overboard. Apparently, in an emergency, while contractors are understandably greedy, employees are desperate and should be grateful for anything -- except, it turns out, African-American and Hispanic workers, because non-discrimination standards also were junked. Even while the EPA and the head of the federal relief effort were warning residents not to return home because of the risk of toxic contamination, Governor Barbour simply suspended all environmental standards in Mississippi for the duration. The nation's homebuilders suggested that we could really get the job of rebuilding done faster if we canceled all energy-efficiency standards and allowed substandard materials that have been sitting in warehouses to be dumped on the Gulf Coast -- never mind whether substandard building is really what the devastated residents who will return really need or can afford.

But, sadly, the Gulf Coast is accustomed to this kind of exploitation by its leaders. This is a region that would not score well in Transparency International's Global Corruption Report. But while there is a good $200 billion to be made on reconstruction, not everyone in America is a good buddy of Haley Barbour's or has wired the contract procedures with the Army Corps of Engineers (whose failed levees created a good bit of the debris that needs to be removed). With a lot of very well-connected people still left out of the opportunity to make a fortune off the taxpayers on the Gulf Coast, the leadership in Congress and the Administration rapidly got creative.

The oil companies were promptly promised free access not only to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge but also to the rest of coastal America, places like the coasts of California, North Carolina, Florida, and New England, whose citizens had struggled for years to protect them. But the oil industry claimed that since the Gulf Coast was too vulnerable to hurricanes, we need to move our oil fields somewhere else, and Congressional leaders like Senator Pete Domenici agreed.

Then the Environmental Protection Agency, apparently concerned not enough unknown toxic hazards had been created by the floodwaters in Cancer Alley, announced that it would weaken the standards governing companies releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. URL In a future hurricane, the agency won't have as big a job determining what happened to the toxic chemicals stored at factories and dump sites, because a great many of them will never have had to disclose their existence. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma decided that repealing clean-air standards might have held off the hurricane's fury -- a little smog might have knocked the socks of Katrina -- so he introduced legislation to make America safe for carcinogens.

All this looting, of course, costs money -- America's plunderers expect to be paid for their rapaciousness. So Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo proposed to refill federal coffers by selling off a large chunk of our inheritance --15 percent of the wild lands that we all still own --claiming that such sales would help pay for reconstruction. Tancredo, however, stopped short of selling off the National Parks. But House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo had no such compunctions about taking the greed orgy to its logical conclusion. He proposed, as a means of meeting the budgetary goals that the Congressional leadership had set for him, in the wake of the hurricane, to sell off one quarter of the National Park System. Fifteen units were designated for sale. Except, to listen to Pombo, even though he had put the plan to sell these parks in a bill, he didn't really favor it himself -- he was just making a point that, short of drilling the Arctic Wildlife refuge, there really was no other way of paying for the devastation of Katrina.

Senator John McCain thought otherwise. He suggested, as did Pat Buchanan and the Wall Street Journal, not to mention the Sierra Club, that perhaps Congress could give up some of its more extravagant pork-barrel projects, like Representative Don Young's two bridges to nowhere. But McCain, it appeared, was showing himself to be an old-fashioned guy, someone who saw the United States as a going concern to be invested in, rather than as a juicy victim of a hostile takeover to be liquidated.

And then, yesterday, the President announced that Americans should conserve energy by not driving unless it is necessary. This is the first time this President has asked for any sacrifice in the aftermath of national crisis, so I suppose it is progress. But the President has not backed up this call to citizens by asking for similar sacrifices from the oil and auto companies. Indeed, the President is still desperately trying to stuff the stockings of the very industries that got us into this crisis.

If we don't get rid of this crew when we have the next chance, we won't be able to claim that we didn't know what they were up to. They are doing it right in front of our eyes.