Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unhappy Anniversary
Today marks one year since Hurricane Katrina struck. Frank Rich and others have beaten the drum on the politics of this story, but to me the more interesting and relevant question is how the nation's governing conservatives have actually responded to the challenge of rebuilding much of a major city in a way that's both resource-efficient and considerate of (though not necessarily deferential to) community sentiment.

If ever a situation demanded "competence, not ideology" from the federal government, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast would seem to be it. But without absolving city and state of their richly deserved share of blame--nobody ever pointed to New Orleans or the state of Louisiana as shining beacons of good government--thus far, it's tough to give the federal response positive marks. According to this report (and trying to filter out the excessive lefty ideological trappings that adorn anything Robert Borosage gets involved with), approximately half of all bus and street car routes are up and running, but only 17 percent of buses are in use; unemployment is much higher than either pre-Katrina or the overall state and national averages; and by December 2005, of the 28,540 loan applications received by the federal Small Business Administration from the Gulf Coast, only 10 percent had been processed and just three percent had been approved. As of May 2006, SBA had denied approximately 11,500 Louisiana loan applications and approved about 11,400, but had distributed only 4,200 checks. This more robust set of indications from the Brookings Institution notes that "[g]as and electricity service is reaching only 41 and 60 percent of the pre-Katrina customer base, respectively." (As in Baghdad, so on Bourbon Street?)

Clearly, competence has been a problem with the recovery effort. But so has ideology:

Bush 43 governs under the considerable shadow of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who famously said in his 2001 inauguration speech, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Bush 43’s inept embrace of Reagan’s maxim has resulted in the literally deadly combination of negligent government and record government debt. The negligence continues to hamper the effort to repair New Orleans and other Katrina-damaged communities. The debt, a product of the billions poured into the Iraq misadventure and wrongheaded tax cuts, drains capital-—both financial and political—-away from housing, education and other pressing needs. But, perhaps most importantly, the conservative ideology that says we are not each others’ keeper—and yet applauds as government fiercely defends the interests of those who have the most—has brought us to where we are today: To a Gulf Coast where the old inequities of race and class have been amplified in the year since the storm.

It is that ideology, it is worth recalling, that helped drive the key decision to downgrade the Federal Emergency Management Agency from a highly praised, Cabinet-level organization to a backwater operation buried inside the labyrinthine Department of Homeland Security. It is an ideology that valued cronyism over expertise and put the dubiously qualified Michael D. Brown in charge. It is an ideology that put property rights and commercial prerogatives over wetlands protection in the Mississippi Delta, which led to the removal of many of the natural barriers that would protect New Orleans from the full force of a hurricane. It is an ideology that also drove many of the short-sighted funding decisions about levee construction in the years before Katrina struck—-for many conservatives only grudgingly support federal infrastructure investment-—and which today continues to value what is cheap over what is right.
...[A]n administration that is so parsimonious in the face of requests for aid to the poor appears almost nonchalant in the face of the continuing waste of billions of taxpayer dollars on such items as thousands of unused FEMA trailers in Hope, Ark., and other holding areas. The administration’s apparent unbridled faith in the private sector, its persistent cronyism and its resistance to vigorous oversight has dominated the government response to Katrina. One result, according to a report this month by House Government Operations Committee ranking member Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., has been the awarding of $8.75 billion worth of “problem contracts” in which there is evidence of waste, fraud or mismanagement.

It is true that the failures of the Hurricane Katrina recovery are not the fault of only one branch of government or of one party. But what is clear is that entrusting the reins of government to an administration which holds in utter contempt the very notion of government as a protector of the public welfare is folly. The Bush administration’s inner circle of advisors still includes Grover Norquist, the never-met-a-tax-cut-I-didn’t-like crusader who famously pledged to fight to get government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Conservatism, it should now be plain to see, is not the answer to the problem; conservatism is the problem.

Emphasis mine. As I think I've noted here before, I don't want the Democrats to go crazy with subpoenas and hearings if they retake a House majority next year--but the one area where I want them to focus like a laser is fraud and waste, in Iraq and on the Gulf Coast. Not only would such a focus shine light on bad actors whom, I would hope, even those on the right would agree deserve shame and punishment; investigation into these matters might help make the case that this essay makes--conservatives, or at least those of the stripe currently running the government, essentially aren't interested in governing or well-suited to do the work of governing. At some point, the relationship between anti-government ideology and governing competence--or the lack of it--has to be noticed.

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