Hat in Hand to Washington

Some industries, such as airlines, had legitimate reason to seek help from Washington in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Too many bankrupt airlines would disrupt the economy.

But the lengthening queue of companies seeking federal help in the name of national security has grown worrisome. The task for the administration and Congress is to provide aid when national well-being is truly at stake, and avoid simply layering on more "corporate pork."

The question of whether to come to a company's assistance can be complicated. Take America West Airlines. It's first in line for some $10 billion in loan guarantees that Congress made available to faltering airlines after the September attacks.

There's no question the airline has deep problems. But it was in trouble before Sept. 11. The federal board distributing the loans is driving a hard bargain. American West has offered the government the possibility of acquiring 10 percent of its stock. That, supposedly, would allow public coffers to benefit should the company prosper in the future. But that prospect is iffy at best. The caution light should be glowing.

Same for the hefty lobbying campaign being launched by big steel manufacturers. That industry's troubles go back decades, but they've grown acute of late. More than two dozen steelmakers have applied for bankruptcy protection in recent years. The industry's advocates are cloaking their pleas for help in national security, pointing out that steel is needed for armaments.

True, but there's no sign of a shortage of steel to make tanks. It's true, also, that foreign manufacturers have dumped their wares on the US market at unfairly low prices. The industry will probably get a measure of relief from the administration.

Some in Congress want to extend aid on another front - federal grants to help large steelmakers like USX or Bethlehem underwrite billions of dollars in health benefits for retired workers. Such obligations are clearly the companies', not the taxpayers'.

What about large commercial farmers seeking increased subsidies to ensure the country's food supply is secure? Or the railroads who are on track to get tax reductions and help with pension problems? Or drugmakers looking for antitrust and other regulatory exemptions so they can more quickly produce antidotes for bioterror agents?

Each of these supplicants requires individual attention - and a careful sorting out of genuine national need from narrow self-interest.

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