The Corner

Katrina and Dubya

High-level muckety-muck writes:

I want to try to untangle some of the confusion we are seeing on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. For example, the charge that we are engaged in a “new New Deal” and a “new Great Society” is rooted in a basic lack of knowledge about policy. That is sometimes the curse of the pundit class.

The reality is that whatever the federal cost of Hurricane Katrina, most of the cost is built in because of statutory commitments (especially the Stafford Act). To put it another way: regardless of who was President — even the most libertarian, small-government conservative — the federal government would be obligated to pay for a huge share of the costs.

Without (hopefully) going into mind-numbing detail, the 1988 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is triggered by a major disaster declaration like Hurricane Katrina. This means that the federal share is required to be at least three-quarters of the reconstruction costs for public infrastructure. In extraordinary circumstances — like Hurricanes Hugo, Iniki, and Andrew, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the terrorist attacks on September 11 — the law commits the federal government to cover between 90 and 100 percent of the cost. This elementary governing fact should cause the few fiscal conservatives who are firing off ill-informed comments to pause long enough to understand that we are meeting legal commitments, not engaged in a “spending spree.”

Beyond that, the President has said he will not raise taxes to pay for the costs of Hurricane Katrina. The President believes a strong national economy will be key to reviving the Gulf Coast region — and raising taxes would choke off rather than strengthen the economy. The President has said we will find savings and offsets in other parts of the budget to help pay for the cost of Hurricane Katrina. The Administration has already proposed $20 billion in discretionary savings that still awaits action by Congress; we believe those savings are a good place to start. And the Administration has also proposed reducing the rate of growth of mandatory spending by $69 billion over the next five years. The Congressional version of that, which still awaits final passage, was only $34.7 billion — and some are saying these savings should now be put off. But now is precisely the wrong time to delay these savings.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the Bush Administration is not endorsing a new cabinet agency or a new federal entitlement. And the policy ideas the President is promoting — the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone, Worker Recovery Accounts, and the Urban Homesteading Act — are effective and conservative means for alleviating persistent poverty and promoting the common good. It is based on the President’s conviction that entrepreneurship will help break the cycle of poverty; that personal accounts will give people good options when it comes to job training and education; and that home ownership is one of the great strengths of any community.

There are, however, real and unavoidable costs directly related to coping with the worst natural disaster in American history. Are our critics suggesting that the federal government has no moral obligations to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina? Are we supposed to believe it is a conservative article of faith that the federal government should not help a decimated region of our nation get back on its feet? Is the operating assumption that we should not aid the region’s innocent people as they rebuild their infrastructure, remove debris, send health professionals and medical supplies to those in need, provide shelter to hundreds of thousands of evacuee families, help displaced persons apply for temporary jobs and unemployment benefits, and so much more? To hold these positions would not be a conservative apotheosis; it would be morally troubling and politically foolish.

I would add, too, that speculation that the cost will be $200 billion or $300 billion is right now based on very little beyond uninformed estimates.

For historical context it may be worth highlighting a point recently made by Tony Blankley, who reminded us that President Reagan spent a huge amount on the S&L bailout in the mid-1980s — and the costs (around $125 billion) were initially believed to be much higher. The point is that there are times when conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, understand the federal government is obliged to spend money — particularly when it is required by law.

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