October 3, 2001 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Taking Advantage of Tragedy

Within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Americans across the country organized themselves into the most awe-inspiring relief force the world has ever seen. By the afternoon of the first day, blood donation centers were overwhelmed with offers, trained rescue workers were marching into harm's way, and young men and women were enlisting in the armed forces by the thousands.

Contrast that spirit of generosity with one that has taken hold among far too many lobbying groups and special interests in our nation's capital. Wrapping themselves in the flag, they're hoping to snag some of the $40 billion that Congress has authorized for economic relief. The unfortunate precedent set by the $17 billion bailout of airline shareholders and creditors has encouraged these lobbyists and their friends in Congress to pull out all the stops.

Politicians from steel-producing states were among the first to see the attack as a way to demand further restrictions on imports of less costly foreign steel. "Without steel, we cannot guarantee our national security," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "Without steel, we cannot build from our tragedy." How these goals would be reached by policies that create shortages and raise prices was never explained.

Although no buses were used as weapons and scheduled bus service received a boost from passengers shifting from planes, the American Bus Association claimed that the "American motorcoach industry is in the midst of an economic crisis." Bus owners are asking Congress for a grant program, low-interest-rate loans, tax credits, repeal of the federal fuel tax, and a new government program to promote tourism.

Apparently oblivious to competing services on the Internet, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) declared that, without travel agencies, "the nation's travel industry cannot function." ASTA is seeking $4 billion in grants and no-interest loans.

National security concerns are even being used to help advance a $167 billion farm subsidy bill that insiders had thought would be defeated because of its budget-busting impact. Supporters now contend that "terrorist attacks have bolstered the argument that food production is a vital national interest." Apparently unaware that the terrorist attacks were confined to urban areas, trade associations representing the growers of more than 20 federally subsidized farm commodities wrote Congress on Sept. 24 that "farmers, like other industries that Congress has helped since the terrorist attacks, are suffering economically."

But these appeals pale in comparison to Amtrak's perennial effort to extract bigger subsidies from government. Facing the prospect of financial insolvency because of operating losses that have worsened year after year, Amtrak's supporters see the tragic attack as an opportunity for a bailout even greater than the one received by the airlines.

Emphasizing that "our transportation system and economy would be far stronger and more resilient if we had a world class passenger rail system," the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), an Amtrak support group advocating federal subsidies, wants Congress to pass the High Speed Rail Act of 2001 (taxpayer cost: $19.1 billion) as well as Amtrak's most recent me-too proposal for an emergency cash infusion of $3 billion -- an amount well in excess of its total annual revenues of $2 billion.

But these excesses were only the beginning of a series of escalating proposals for costly schemes. Within days of the attack, one senator proposed giving Amtrak $37 billion, while a House member proposed $70 billion in loans and grants for rail improvements.

Sorting through this growing list of demands will be a challenge for members of Congress as the legitimate needs of real victims are forced to compete with lobbyists seeking to take advantage of the catastrophe. America has never faced such circumstances, so there exist little precedent and no convenient formulas or rules of thumb to guide Congress in choosing among conflicting demands.

Left with little more than their own good judgment and goodwill, perhaps Congress could gain inspiration from the sacrifices already made by millions of ordinary Americans and, before each decision, simply ask: "Am I serving my country as well as the New York firemen and policemen served their city?"

Ronald D. Utt is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

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