Politics & Policy

Hurricane of Spending

How will Congress deal with Katrina?

No matter how the aftermath of Hurricane Rita played out the reporters covering President Bush’s response were sure of one thing–he would come out worse for wear. Ever since the war effort in Iraq began to encounter its first real challenges the White House press corps has openly expressed a determination to treat the president’s agenda with a heightened level of scrutiny. However, the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita reveal a press corps at an emotional state of development more akin to rebellious teenagers than rational adults. In other words, there is little hesitation on their part to challenge President Bush’s authority, but when he fails to provide the security and comfort they privately desire, their response is outrage and disappointment.

When I flew out to Texas early Friday morning Hurricane Rita was a category-five hurricane. There was a seemingly endless flow of discussion from weather experts as to how Rita was likely to arrive with a level of force seen only a handful of times per century. Instead, the hurricane arrived in eastern Texas and Louisiana as a category-three hurricane. A reported three million Houston residents successfully evacuated only to see their region go largely unscathed. While the damage and loss of life should not be ignored, the potential for death and devastation went far from realized. Reporters, politicians, and pundits alike described the benign aftermath as a miracle. But that’s where the good news ends.

As I drove across the state of Texas this past weekend, I was mostly treated to clear blue skies and hot weather. Late Friday and early Saturday saw Hurricane Rita’s arrival, but again, while the damage was significant, its repercussions were far less than most had feared. The back of my Toyota Highlander stocked with bottled water, bed sheets, and beef jerky quickly appeared quaint.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it became clear to most observers there was no shortage of blame to go around. Local, state, and federal officials all failed in some capacity. Yet for all the deserved criticism the only political consequences so far have manifest themselves in a resigned FEMA director and a president with damaged poll numbers. When it comes to holding others accountable, most in the media seem to have selectively embraced the notion espoused by many Republicans that now is not the time to place blame; at least when it comes to scrutiny directed at Democrat lawmakers.

The response from White House reporters in Katrina’s aftermath can best be summarized as, “Where was the White House when we needed them?” To this end, President Bush made sure he was on the scene to confront Hurricane Rita before it struck, during its peak and in its aftermath. Naturally, this was not enough to satisfy his critics. NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory served as lead spokesman for the president’s detractors when he asked Bush on Friday, “I mean what can you actually do? I mean, isn’t there a risk of you and your entourage getting in the way?” President Bush answered with a rare emotional but blunt response, “No, there will be no risk of me getting in the way, I promise you.”

At this point in his presidency it is clear that no matter what course Bush charts the Left will find fault. By the same token, so long as he chooses a path within reasonable confines he will hold the support of a base that helped reelected him to a second term. But there can be little question the incessant skepticism of a White House press corps apparently committed to his failure has had an impact on Bush’s temperament. When appearing at the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin on Saturday afternoon, Bush was clearly annoyed as he rocked in his chair and his jaw moved in a grinding and swaying motion.

The discomfort, though, isn’t all about the press pool. His own party is in a bit of fiscal turmoil. Most analysts have tagged the relief costs for both hurricanes at somewhere around $200 billion. The president himself has indicated that we’ll spend more on the hurricane recovery than we’ve spent on Iraqi reconstruction over the past year. He has assured people on the Gulf Coast that “we will do what it takes”–leaving the recovery operation feeling a little limitless. And in Congress, the GOP seemingly can’t decide how best to pay–or not to pay–for this effort.

While meeting with local, state, and federal relief officials over the weekend, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay responded to calls for massive federal spending by telling National Review Online, “My first feeling is to get the facts. Many who are claiming there is going to be a $200 billion price tag for Hurricane Katrina relief are just wrong. On top of that, private charities and local authorities are already spending great amounts of money on the relief effort.”

DeLay said:

At the same time, you have to respond appropriately to a disaster. And that is exactly what this is. But cutting from essential programs is not the answer. We need to continue to focus on growing the economy. Those who are advocating a rollback of the Medicare bill are the same ones who opposed it in the first place. John McCain has been advocating that we throw out the Highway Bill. That took us more than two years to complete. I don’t agree with him on his plan there. He already voted against the Highway Bill, so I think you have to look at the facts.

DeLay followed up our interview with an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Times, where he wrote:

This has brought about an important level of debate on the vital need to promote fiscally responsible policies in Congress. And I agree that an essential point has achieved consensus in this debate: The current political dialogue on spending is one that requires a clear declaration of principles from House Republicans. We will continue to display an earnest devotion to the ideals of a smaller, more efficient, better-prioritized government. Flaunting rhetoric on the issue of fiscal discipline will not be enough. The conservative ideals of fiscal discipline and leaner, smarter government require a legislative agenda that can be put into action and enacted into law.

Meanwhile, more than 100 conservative members of the House Republican Study Committee have released what they call “Operation Offset,” a call for specific budget cuts to offset the costs of hurricane recovery efforts. Over its 25 pages, the plan outlines more than 100 ideas in 10 years for $800 billion in savings. At this point, the plan doesn’t have the support of the House leadership.

On the Senate side, Senator John McCain took his cost-cutting agenda to the Sunday talk-show circuit, asking ABC’s This Week, “Can’t we sacrifice one bike path, one horse trail, one bridge to nowhere?”

In his chamber, McCain is not alone. Just across the room from DeLay at the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Senator John Cornyn told me:

Put me down as worried. I support the across-the-board cuts that were proposed by Senator Grassley. The problem is, we have a Congress that talks an awful lot about cutting programs and government waste. But when it comes to cutting those specific programs, in the end, nothing happens. What we don’t need is putting all the costs for this at the federal level. The taxpayer doesn’t need to be playing the role of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Even those who see a limited reach for the federal government in moments of crisis view the response to Hurricane Rita as leaps and bounds beyond the initially stilted response to Hurricane Katrina. When faced with such a choice it is safe to assume most would choose facing long lines of traffic and a short-term gas shortage rather than the potential for death and destruction. However, the real debate and its real long-term consequences may come from a Republican Congress presently divided on how best to respond to the aftermath of one of America’s greatest tragedies. Either way, President Bush emerges somewhat damaged. Certainly not beyond repair, but much like those in Louisiana and eastern Texas, in need of rapid recovery.

Eric Pfeiffer writes the daily political “Buzz” column on NRO.

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