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Vitter vs. taking the money and run spells problems for Dems

Sen. David Vitter has begun to find his political legs as partisan implications begin to creep in to post-hurricane reconstruction politics in Louisiana.

Last week, Republican Vitter argued contrary to Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu’s view that an emergency $750 million (sliced from the current $62.3 billion amount allocated to the state for cleanup) to fund government operations in the state should come in the form of loans due in three years, rather than be an outright gift. Landrieu argued that past federal bailouts in time of emergency has been grants, not loans (actually, nine times out of ten), applicable here because local governments may well be too strapped over the short run to pay back funds.

Vitter said House attitudes were such that he could not see a grant going through in time for a 10-day recess following last Friday, and the House did hold up its end of the bargain by zipping the loan measure right through. The loan as opposed to grant aspect got Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon in a lather, who famously counseled local governments receiving such funds to “take the money and run.”

But Vitter is right. With political shenanigans so well known that even the Louisiana media’s opinion columnists and news reporters write about it, Congress will not let any money given for government operations go without at least the appearance of strings attached. Vitter also has promised to work to get those strings detached over the three-year exemption window.

Note the different psychological approaches involved. If there were no strings from the start, this would discourage more thorough bookkeeping and accountability. But if localities knew they were on the hook for the funds, even with an implicit promise that they would be forgiven, they have much more incentive to be frugal and wise in the funds’ use, knowing that this manumission would occur only if the federal government felt the funds had been used that way.

And thus note the different psychologies of the Democrats Melancon and Landrieu compared to the Republican Vitter (and, apparently, the remainder of the Republican Louisiana House delegation). When Melancon says to “take the money and run,” he reveals his own beliefs about resources collected by government, that it is inconsequential that they come from the people, and that the goal is to get and spend as much of them as possible. Vitter, by contrast, urges responsibility for government in its duty to carefully shepherd the people’s bounty.

It’s a good comeback for Vitter, who, when in a rush to look like he was trying to “do” something about the disaster he authored a bill filled with pork for Louisiana’s recovery, took a lot of heat both at home and nationally. His Republican House counterparts have taken the tack of less-grandiose, more-workmanlike specific bills, to which Vitter should allow the gutting of his vehicle to accommodate their present and future efforts.

If so, Democrats Melancon and Landrieu could be in for rough electoral sailing. Melancon is the only House member willing to stick with the Vitter mega-package (and Landrieu’s identical version). Next year, Republicans can use his comment and support of the mega-bills to fairly paint Melancon as an unconcerned big spender. And if Republican Washington sets up Vitter to be able to take credit for getting the loans forgiven by 2008, it also will become easier to tag Landrieu the same way in that reelection year for her.

If Vitter takes this route, then federal Louisiana Republicans not only will accomplish getting relief to the state and be able to take credit for it, they will make federal Louisiana Democrats look bad in the process.

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