Bush to NYC: Drop Dead

How the Electoral College intercepted $9 billion for Sept. 11 relief.

“We are at war, and we must pay the price to fight a war,” the White House pronounces in its proposed budget for fiscal year 2003. But that price doesn’t appear to include $20 billion that the Bush administration promised—and that Congress subsequently authorized—to help rebuild lower Manhattan after terrorists leveled the World Trade Center. In the Feb. 5 New York Times,Raymond Hernandez reports that only $11.1 billion has been turned over to New York. The Bush budget does not include the remaining $9 billion. (Technically, a small part of that $20 billion is supposed to help rebuild the areas in Pennsylvania and around the Pentagon in Virginia that were also destroyed on Sept. 11. At any rate, the authorization language stipulates that $20 billion is a floor, not a ceiling.)

Here is how White House budget director Mitch Daniels spun the omission at a briefing yesterday:

[A]id to New York will eventually total well over $20 billion. It’s not going to be proposed that way in any one budget because this is going to be a multiyear project. It’s going to take years to rebuild infrastructure, subway, perhaps sea wall and other very expensive things. We won’t know for a long time exactly how much it is. It’s very clear, though, that as we deliver on the commitments the president has made, unprecedented commitments, most of it at 100 percent federal funding, to New York, that the total will run in excess of the $20 billion figure that was sort of a good-faith guess by New Yorkers at the outset.

Obviously this gives the White House an enormous amount of wiggle room. Spending the emergency funds over several years gives the Bush administration ample opportunities to double-count money it would have allocated to New York even if Sept. 11 had never occurred. And already there’s a minor controversy over whether a $5 billion victims’ compensation fund will be counted against the $20 billion. Daniels said at first that it would, adding that anybody who complained about that was “playing a money-grubbing game.” (Later, a budget-office spokeswoman told the Times that the victims’ comp would not come out of the $20 billion.) New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has likened the Bush administration’s attitude to that of Gerald Ford when the Daily News ran its famous headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

Why the casual contempt for the needs of a city that, after all, remains a disaster area? The Electoral College, stupid! It has often been noted that the “winner take all” allocation of electors in most states disenfranchises Republican voters who live in majority-Democratic states and Democratic voters who live in majority-Republican states. People don’t vote for president—states do. But the Electoral College also tends to foster an unhelpful “winner take all” ethic when the presidential victor disburses funds from the federal treasury. That’s why Bill Clinton spent eight years lavishing money on California. The corollary to “winner take all” spending is “loser take nothing.” Given New York’s overwhelming presidential preference for Democrats, the Bushies are well aware that whatever money Bush’s treasury doles out in New York won’t buy him a single electoral vote in 2004. In a Sept. 12 item, Chatterbox predicted that Sept. 11 would eventually stimulate the economy because it would occasion greater government spending. That spending is underway, and early signs suggest the economy is indeed rebounding. But Chatterbox overestimated the Bush administration when he suggested that it would spend big bucks to rebuild New York even though it would receive no electoral benefit from doing so. It isn’t.

Some of the blame for this sad situation rests with New York itself. That’s because New Yorkers, and liberal Democrats generally, tend quietly to favor maintaining the Electoral College. Why? Because the Electoral College gives disproportionate power to heavily urban states. Indeed, large-population states get even more benefit from the Electoral College than small-population states do. (To learn why, read “Faithless Elector Watch: Gimme ‘Equal Protection.’  ”) But when the urban states lose, they lose big. Perhaps this latest consequence will persuade Sen. Hillary Clinton, who in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election said she’d introduce legislation to abolish the Electoral College, to make good on that pledge.