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Can the Washington-New Orleans Relationship Get Any More Dysfunctional?

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I was in New Orleans most of last week, skating along the razor's edge between outrage and hope (and dodging big, new pickups driven by crazed contractors hurtling from job to job).

There were three big stories all over The Times-Picayune and WWL talk radio (not counting the Saints) - the Road Home program, the main conduit for federal compensation for people with damaged homes; the levees/coastal restoration; and Congressman William Jefferson's decisive victory retaining his seat, despite the $90,000 in marked bills the feds found in his freezer.

The three are intertwined, and they signal more trouble ahead for the rocky relationship between New Orleans, Washington and the nation.

The Road Home program, which is supposed to provide up to $150,000 to homeowners, has been plagued by snafus. Hardly anbody's got their money - a major drag on rebuilding and recovery. The TP ran a story on an elderly couple who lost their $200,000 house. Road Home's alchemical formulas determined they should get $550. Minus a FEMA grant. So, they get zilch - technically, less than zilch. After that, the TP message boards lit up with predictable anger and confusion from everybody else who got similar treatment.

The state is pushing a draft coastal protection plan that makes a start of figuring out how to protect the city over the long term. Good so far. But a vast gap exists between the cost and the revenue likely to be available. Coastal restoration alone could run in the tens of billions. Congress just threw the state a share of offshore oil and gas royalties - but it's only $20 million a year, for now.

I have no one-sentence explanation for the errant Rep. Jefferson's victory. Jefferson is under federal investigation for his alleged role in a kickback/bribery scheme having to do with a Nigerian telecom deal. Prosecutors flipped a former aide, who pled guilty to bribing him and got an eight-year sentence - subject to reduction depending on his cooperation. Then there was that $90,000 in Tupperware in the freezer. Yet he won 57 percent of the vote.

It owes a lot to idiosyncratic, local factors - low-turnout in the runoff, the political ineptitude of his challenger, Karen Carter, and the last-minute intervention of Harry Lee, the colorful sheriff of suburban Jefferson Parish, part of which lies in Jefferson's district. (Details here, if you really want to know.) But there were other explanations - one of the favored ones was, Washington has screwed up so much already handling the recovery effort, and still hasn't indicted our man after months of uncertainty - so we're just going to say, screw you Washington!

To the extent that's true, it signals an ongoing breakdown with much broader dimensions than one Congressional seat. New Orleans distrusts Washington, that's clear enough. Its people have more reasons to than just about anyone, save the citizens of Iraq. But Washington doesn't seem to have much incentive to fix that. Agencies are stumbling along, with little coordination or leadership, as New Orleans fades from the national agenda.

Meanwhile, in Washington and nationally, there is a convenient one-sentence explanation for the Jefferson victory: What kind of fool sends a political pariah with $90,000 in his freezer back to Congress? Maybe, somebody who doesn't much care about making things work right. So why bother?

I don't think that's a good explanation. But unfortunately, it's very easy to understand.