By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
September 14, 2005
Congress has already appropriated $62.3 billion for Katrina's aftermath. Officials say the federal tab could easily exceed $200 billion.
Congress has also turned away from conservative orthodoxy, at least temporarily, by postponing plans for more tax cuts and reductions to the Medicaid program, which covers the poorest Americans.
To some conservatives, supporters of the Republican-dominated Congress and of the Bush administration, this slate of actions raises a host of questions: What is the federal government's proper role in relief and recovery from a natural disaster in such areas as educating the children of evacuees and providing medical coverage for people who've lost their homes and jobs? How should storm relief be paid for? How should shattered Gulf Coast communities like New Orleans or Gulfport, Miss., be rebuilt?
"Overreacting in Washington usually means throwing money at a problem," said former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, now chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, the 33-year-old think tank that is enormously influential in Washington's conservative circles. "We want to be fiscally responsible."
Meese's Heritage Foundation colleague, Michael Franc, said Katrina is following in the long tradition of emergencies throughout American history. "Crises cause government to grow," said Franc, the foundation's director of relations with Congress. "The test today will be how much of the federal response occurs within the existing boxes or through innovative ways."
The Heritage Foundation has put together a long proposal for how Congress and Bush should deal with Katrina, which is sure to become by far the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.
It calls for freezing all discretionary federal spending, redirecting money from the pet projects of Congress' members, making New Orleans and other damaged areas "opportunity zones" where many regulations - including environmental curbs - would be waived and taxes would be cut, helping to restore oil and gas production along the Gulf Coast by helping refinery construction, and giving evacuees tax credits for health care coverage and vouchers to send their children to schools of their choice.
The proposal also says that Congress should not delay making Bush's tax cuts permanent or carrying out plans to do away with the estate tax that affects the richest Americans.
The conservatives who chide their fellow Republicans for willy-nilly spending on Katrina have their eyes on one particular source of money to pay for the hurricane and flood. They want Congress to reopen the $286.4 billion transportation bill enacted in July to remove some $25 billion in projects that almost all members had inserted for their home districts.
These include the proposed $230 million bridge in Alaska from Ketchikan to an island with 50 residents, inserted through the influence of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, and $20 million for a private company to start ferry service from Sonoma County to San Francisco and Oakland, a proposal backed by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma.
"I want to see people who take credit for bringing home pork stand up and donate the money for their projects to the Gulf Coast," said Stuart Butler, Heritage's vice president of domestic and economic studies.
The idea of cutting or redirecting federal spending to Katrina recovery efforts was shot down by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
"A disaster is just what is, a disaster," he told reporters. "It's similar to the process of going to war. It's a monumental issue for the people of the United States."
DeLay said none of his members had come to him with proposed cuts in specific programs to pay for Katrina recovery. As for taking money away from transportation projects, he said that would be self-defeating.
"Taking spending from infrastructure spending would undermine our ability to create the environment for a good economy," DeLay said.
DeLay defended increasing the already huge federal deficit in this instance. "When you have something like this, it is right to borrow to pay for it, but it is not right to attack the very economy that will pay for it," he said.
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