Government & Politics

Mockery of scientific research comes back to haunt Bobby Jindal

A recent News Star editorial praised Governor Bobby Jindal’s leadership as the state and the Army Corps of Engineers take historic steps to manage the swollen Mississippi River.

Titled “Jindal steps up in time of need,” the opinion piece commends our governor’s data-driven, pro-active approach to the situation.  I’ll commend Jindal as well. He’s skilled at finding a camera in a crisis, and no one delivers more information in less time. Citizens want that information, so Jindal’s doing valuable work. And for this latest crisis, Jindal is doing better at summarizing the facts, and bottom-lining it for viewers so the important points don’t get lost in the details.

Still, for all the timely updates he delivers, you won’t hear Jindal say a word about how he thinks federal programs that underwrite stream flow gauges are silly, wasteful investments — as he did two years ago.

You may recall Jindal’s most important speech ever — his prime-time response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address before Congress. It was a total flop. Everyone thought Jindal’s sing-song delivery and saccharine anecdotes were awful. And when you drilled down into the actual content of the speech, it was even worse than the presentation.

Jindal decided to feign ignorance and mock a program for “something called volcano-monitoring” in Alaska, just a few months before an Alaskan volcano erupted over and over, sending ash clouds more than 11 miles above sea level. Jindal’s mockery was an attempt at parroting the national GOP agenda of the day, which encouraged the faithful to highlight examples of “pork” in the Democrats’ stimulus bill. Jindal dutifully bought in, and Louisiana saw its Rhodes Scholar Governor mock volcano monitoring it as if it were a $200 Pentagon toilet seat.

The deeper flaw in Jindal’s resort to GOP talking points was that he got the math wrong. Only $7 to $14 million of the $140 million he cited actually went to “volcano monitoring.” The rest of the funding in that line item supported other U.S. Geological Survey projects such as equipment replacement, mapping, and upgrades to “stream gauges in Louisiana and other states that will provide emergency planners with better real-time information …”

You read that correctly. According to Jindal, one of the premier examples of waste in the trillion-dollar stimulus package was a program that, in part, monitored river and stream flooding. A state still recovering from disastrous hurricanes and floods watched its top spokesman complain to the nation about scientific instruments that monitor things like volcanos and floods.

As we’re witnessing all too vividly right now, when the Mississippi river rises too far above flood stage, its swollen tributaries get backed up, and they begin flooding as well. Stream gauges keep track of river height and velocity, so we can predict crests and overflows before they occur. These are nice instruments to have, if you’re concerned about things like public safety. The 2009 version of Bobby Jindal dismissed them as “wasteful.”

I bring this up again, not only because it’s a topical yet overlooked story, but because some, like Slate reporter Dave Weigel, have tried to re-characterize Jindal’s original argument. Recently, Weigel wrote:

Back in February 2009, Republicans found a lot of risible spending in the stimulus bill. In his response to the State of the Union, Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., derided the stimulus for including “$140 million for something called volcano monitoring.” The gripe was mostly that the funding, mostly for U.S. Geological Survey upkeep, wasn’t stimulative. (This is a pretty good argument.) But Democrats honed in on that comment to decide that Republicans were going to try to cut funding for natural disaster monitoring.

This isn’t wrong. The continuing resolution passed by the GOP House, the one that just failed in the Senate, reduces funding for the federal agencies that monitor and react to disasters.

No! Wrong! False! Jindal’s “gripe,” as written and as delivered, was absolutely NOT “that the funding… wasn’t stimulative.”

While I’m sure that’s the angle the Jindal camp would like Weigel to use, it is NOT the argument Jindal made, nor is it an interpretation supported by the facts. Let’s take another look at what Jindal actually said:

Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, [the Democratic Congress]  passed the largest government spending bill in history, with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest. While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a “magnetic levitation” line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called “volcano monitoring.” Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.

The complaint was that this $140 million program was a marquee example of government waste. Jindal argued that volcano monitoring (and, implicitly, stream monitoring) should be cut from the bill because it is “wasteful spending.” He explicitly contrasted these programs with other (unnamed) programs in the bill that “make sense.” Jindal wasn’t merely mocking a potentially worthy program because it was misplaced in a stimulus bill, he was mocking it as an example of a bogus priority. Government should cut its spending, rather invest $140 million to monitor volcanoes (and floods).

The point of Jindal’s speech was that government can’t rescue a region from disaster any more than it can rescue a nation from economic disaster. The best it can do is cut taxes and get out of the way. That’s what he told the nation in 2009, on Louisiana’s behalf, in the most important speech of his life in front of his biggest audience. Then he grandly refused 1% of Louisiana’s share of the federal stimulus money, and used the rest to balance the state budget and for photo-ops in which he helicoptered into towns across the state and delivered oversized checks to grateful citizens.

Louisiana was still recovering from two mega-hurricanes and a federal flood, yet our Governor pointed to a disaster prevention program as a prime example of government waste. He told the audience that “Americans can do anything,” especially if their taxes are lower. I wonder if he’ll use the same line when he requests billions in federal tax dollars to ameliorate Louisiana’s ongoing $100 billion coastal loss disaster.

So, yes, all due praise to Jindal for getting in front of cameras and being informative about river flow forecasts. But where does he think scientists get the data he passes along, if not from the sorts of programs he famously mocked as “wasteful.”

This foolishness unfolded before the eyes of the nation Louisiana must now beg for the federal dollars it will take to save our ruined coast.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • jeffrey

    Be careful when quoting the Governor directly like that. He may invoke the Newt doctrine and declare your citation a falsehood.