"The incompetence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency...demonstrated the folly of entrusting life-and-death public mandates to clueless political appointees and ideological foes of 'big government.' The speed with which Washington suspended the prevailing wage standards of the Davis-Bacon Act and swung open the doors of New Orleans to corporate looters such as Halliburton, the Shaw Group and Blackwater Security, already fat from the spoils of the Tigris, contrasted obscenely with FEMA's deadly procrastination over sending water, food and buses to the multitudes trapped in the stinking hell of the Louisiana Superdome." -- Le Monde
If there's one thing the Bush administration does well, it's taking advantage of a situation, no matter its nature, to further its own agenda. See below for some examples.
One of the first things Bush did was issue an executive order allowing companies working in the hurricane-stricken area to pay its employees wages far below the mandated federal minimum wage, an infuriating and inexplicable decision. Turns out that Bush probably exceeded his authority to overturn the law, called the Davis-Bacon Act. As the Federation of American Scientists reports, "'I find that the conditions caused by Hurricane Katrina constitute a "national emergency" within the meaning of section 3147 of title 40, United States Code,' President Bush declared on September 8 as he removed the Davis Bacon Act wage supports for workers in Louisiana, and portions of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. But this emergency statute was one of numerous authorities that were rendered dormant by the National Emergencies Act of 1976, and that can only be activated by certain procedural formalities that were absent in this case. In particular, the President must formally declare a national emergency under the National Emergencies Act, and he must specify which standby legal authorities he proposes to activate so as to permit congressional restraint of emergency powers. Strangely, however, President Bush proceeded as if the National Emergencies Act did not exist." The Daily Kos blogger who reported this wrote, "This is a brazen act of an imperial presidency to curtail the legal rights of the population without any authority to do so."
On September 10, Albequerque Tribune columnist V.B. Price notes trenchantly that "The Bush administration couldn't get emergency relief to New Orleans for days after the endlessly predicted, catastrophic hurricane and flooding two weeks ago. But close to 24 hours after the death of U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the White House, swamped in criticism over New Orleans, named John Roberts as its choice to fill Rehnquist's shoes. In one case, planning was nonexistent, because the ruling party saw no political advantage to it. In the other, planning was meticulously precise, the political advantage being obvious to everyone. ...Our national government is dominated by incompetent jokers so lost in their own venality that they can't get serious about governing, about public service or about caring for those who can't care for themselves."
Republican political operatives are giddy about the prospects of losing thousands of black, and presumably Democratic, voters from Louisiana due to the mass evacuations, and thereby gaining political ground in that barely-red state. Currently both the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans are Democrats, though Mayor Ray Nagin is a converted Republican. Perhaps 1.5 million voters, mostly African-Americans, have been essentially disenfranchised, says the Louisiana NAACP. That group is moving to have legislation passed ensuring those voters' rights to continue voting in their previous districts even though they may have been evacuated elsewhere. State Republicans are already pondering a move to redistrict the state to favor their own party and further water down the New Orleans influence on state voting. Before the hurricane, a third of Louisiana's voters were black, and about half of New Orleans's voters were black. That voting pool has been heavily diluted, with refugees spread throughout 30 states in various refugee camps and shelters. While Louisiana has voted Republican in several national elections, the heavy concentration of black voters helped Democrats narrowly take numerous state and local offices. That voting pattern is certain to change. Author Earl Ofari Hutchinson observed, "Katrina destroyed the fortunes of thousands of New Orleans blacks, while potentially boosting the political fortunes of the GOP. That certainly hasn't escaped Bush and Rove."
Dr. Teresa Whitehurst analyzes the upcoming Bush damage-control campaign. She predicts "[a] brief mea culpa...quickly followed by a brilliant defensive campaign that the mainstream media will be obliged to support." (Note: Writing this 11 days after her article appeared on September 6, I can safely say that her predictions are already coming true.) Whitehurst writes, "Bush, greatly relieved by Katrina's obliteration of the daily images of Cindy Sheehan and the re-invigorated antiwar movement, will find that the Katrina disaster provides great PR opportunities. He'll start making his 'resolute' face a lot and start preaching. He'll stand tall and deliver to the poor and the needy (and voting audiences everywhere) a sermonette at every opportunity filled with flowery, flattering, and inspiring words. In the interests of modesty, I should confess that I can't take full credit for my foresight, because he's already started and, as you'll see, the media is cooperating with the program." The media will cooperate as they always do, emphasizing the president's "resolute" demeanor leavened with "smiles" and "humourous asides." He will emphasize time and again that "This is not the time to complain or second-guess our Commander-in-Chief." (Whitehurst notes sourly that the time to "complain or second-guess" will never, ever arrive.) He and the media will play up the "good news" from the rescue efforts, and emphasize that "America must stand together with its leaders" to rescue New Orleans from the chaos inflicted on it by this self-same leadership. He will deflect all questions about manpower being redirected to Iraq, or resources wasted, or people left to die, or whatever, with calls for prayer and appeals for divine guidance. The comparisons between Katrina and 9/11 will flow like floodwaters through the streets of New Orleans. Whitehurst concludes, acidly: "When we all go up in smoke it'll be too late to complain, but in the meantime he and his buddies will be livin' large." Her article contains many examples and quotes that bolster her conclusions.
White House officials and Congressional leaders think they can use the Katrina disaster to further their own purposes, including student vouchers for schools, gutting business regulations, and bringing churches into providing temporary housing. "There are about a thousand churches right here in Houston, and a lot of them are helping people with housing, but FEMA says they can't reimburse faith-based organizations," says GOP congressman Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, said. DeLay added that Congress should also allow students displaced by the hurricane to use vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools. Conservatives have championed school vouchers for decades. Bush has already issued an order exempting federal contractors working on disaster relief projects from a longstanding federal requirement that they pay workers "prevailing wages," which are usually pegged to union pay rates. The exemption strikes at the heart of a requirement that labor unions and Democratic lawmakers have ferociously defended for years. "There are a lot of opportunities to experiment," says Treasury Secretary John Snow.
The Wall Street Journal writes, "Congressional Republicans, backed by the White House, say they are using relief measures for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf coast to achieve a broad range of conservative economic and social policies, both in the storm zone and beyond." Bush has already unilaterally suspended laws mandating minimum wage be paid to reconstruction workers, lifted tariffs on Canadian lumber, relaxed import laws on foreign sugar, and waived affirmative-action rules for employers with federal contracts in the gulf region. Legislation is in the works to limit victims' rights to sue, offer school vouchers for displaced children, scrap environmental restrictions on new oil refineries, and create tax-advantaged enterprise zones to maximize private-sector participation in recovery and reconstruction. According to White House plans, the disaster will become the opportunity to mandate an entire raft of conservative economic initiative and private-sector fantasies. Michael Franc, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization consulted by the White House, said, "This is a moment to teach or explain to the American people how [Bush's] values apply to this catastrophic situation." And RNC chairman Ken Mehlman sends out a mass e-mail on September 1 advocating using the hurricane as an excuse to repeal the inheritance tax. John Aravosis responds tartly, "Here's an idea, Ken. If you're concerned about people paying a tax when they die then call your president and tell him to stop d*cking around and do something about the people dying all across the South while you lobby for tax cuts." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist plans on bringing the inheritance tax repeal up for a vote in early September.
Newsweek's Eleanor Clift wrote on September 16, "To hear Bush talk, we're about to witness a Republican utopia in the hurricane zone. Children will go to school with vouchers. Wages will be lowered and regulations waived to accommodate the big contractors. The entire area will become a free-enterprise zone. And the GOP, under the guise of economic revival, will impose one of its favorite ideas, the flat tax. It's reminiscent of the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, where Carrey lives in a picture-perfect town -- except it turns out all the residents are actors. In Bush's version, everybody's a Republican. ...The rebuilding effort is ideologically motivated and influenced by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that fueled the Reagan presidency. The proposals in a report titled 'Tragedy to Triumph' are premised on the belief that corporations freed from labor unions, environmental restrictions and onerous taxes will reap huge profits and those profits will grow the pie for everybody -- and at least create some crumbs for the masses. This is a pivotal moment in politics with a president severely compromised and the country poised to embrace a contrary view of government that rejects the Darwinian capitalism of the Reagan-Bush era. If ever there was a time for the progressive community to step forward and offer ideas, it is now, however hard it is to penetrate the Rove message machine and its many allies in the media."
In Bush's speech of September 15, he said, "It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces." However, all the evidence points to, not a lack of federal authority, but an overwhelming incompetence and unwillingness to get involved on the part of the feds. Joshua Micah Marshall writes, "show me the instance where the federal government was prevented from doing anything that needed to be done because it lacked the requisite authority. ...This is how repressive governments operate -- mixing inefficiency with authoritarian tendencies. You don't repair disorganized or incompetent government by granting it more power. You fix it by making it more organized and more competent. If conservatism can't grasp that point, what is it good for?" As for the military, it performed an important and often effective role in the Katrina disaster, but "what broader role was required exactly?" Marshall asks. He continues: "As I've been saying, repressive governments mix adminsitrative clumsiness and inefficiency with authoritarian tendencies. That's almost always the pattern. The direction the president wants to go in is one in which, in emergencies, the federal government will have trouble moving water into or enabling transportation out of the disaster zone but will be well-equipped to declare martial law on a moment's notice. Another pack of lies. Right in front of everyone." We're seeing a pattern here: the Bush administration using a disaster, be it 9/11, a hurricane, or what, as an excuse to broaden its powers and curtail civil liberties.
A senior Republican House official said, "We are not sure he knows what he is getting into." Molly Ivins wrote that she knows just what he's getting this country into: "The coming attractions for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast play like a shot-by-shot remake of the mother of all disaster features, the reconstruction of Iraq." She continued, "This rhetorical comparison extends to what the president didn't say -- namely, anything about the need for shared sacrifice. He didn't call for it after 9/11, he didn't call for it when we embarked on the war in Iraq, and he didn't call for it as we are embarking on the rebuilding of New Orleans. The closest he came was challenging 'scout troops' to 'get in touch with their counterparts' in the disaster area and 'learn what they can do to help.' ...Indeed, responding to the devastation caused by Katrina, Treasury Secretary John Snow claimed: 'Making the [Bush] tax cuts permanent would be a real plus in a situation like this.' Sure, why ask for some sacrifice from the richest Americans when we have scout troops doing their part?" She noted that the same companies who are busy reaping huge profits in Iraq are the same companies given the fat rebuilding and reconstruction contracts throughout the Gulf Coast -- Halliburton, KB&R, Shaw, Bechtel, Fluor, etc. His promise to keep the companies honest through oversight by inspectors is rendered meaningless by the knowledge of what happened to senior inspector Bunnatine Greenhouse when she attempted to blow the whistle on Halliburton: with the complicity of the government, Greenhouse was demoted and the abuses she reported were not investigated. Ivins concluded, "Iraq is an utter catastrophe. The only good that can come from it will be as an object lesson in what not to do with Katrina. But, so far, it's a lesson both the president and the loyal opposition seem unwilling to learn. As the philosopher said: It's deja vu all over again."
Democracy Now correspondent Jeremy Scahill said of the impending Republican remake of New Orleans, "One of the great concerns right now in New Orleans is businessmen talking openly of wanting to see New Orleans change, to change it completely in a demographic sense, geographically, politically, racially. You have this overt rhetoric. Well, as residents of New Orleans come back in and they try to go back to the apartments they were rent stabilized, the houses they were renting, they face a city that has repressive laws that do not protect tenants. You have an overt agenda to change the racial makeup of the city, the economic makeup of the city, and you have these very wealthy people hiring private mercenary types to guard their property and their interests. Then you also have the National Guard and the Army inside of the city now, and so the potential for conflict with residents coming back in is very great. A lot of people are very concerned now with this martial law still in effect with the military curfew in effect, that that is going to remain as people come back and live here. It's one thing to have martial law when you have a depopulated city. It's another thing to have it when you have people who want to go about the business of rebuilding their lives, particularly when they are being told by very wealthy, powerful people backed up by men with guns that they are not welcome in the city that they have lived in their whole life. We have a potential, I think, for serious, overt conflict, hot conflict here in New Orleans as people start coming back in.
"... I mean, what they're really trying to do is to settle the poor and the African-American populations of New Orleans elsewhere. And to make New Orleans a nice, white city, for white, rich businessmen. There's no other way to put it. That's exactly what we're seeing right now. They want to take areas for instance like the Ninth Ward and turn them into big -- you know, Wal-Mart type neighborhoods. ...The people that are a part of it are old-time Louisiana white Republican families working in conjunction with their friend, mayor Ray Nagin, and there's no other way to put it. They love Ray Nagin. He's pro-business. He's their guy." Scahill's reporting was confirmed by James Rice, the New Orleans businessman who owns the private, luxurious gated community called Audobon Place. Rice, who has hired Israeli mercenaries as his personal and corporate bodyguards, has said, "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way, demographically, geographically and politically. I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we have been living is not going to happen again or we're out." Rice has demanded that poor New Orleans residents not be allowed back into the city.
On September 16, Rush Limbaugh said bluntly, "The table is set for a complete rout of the American left. They can be blown away. We can make this a Category 5 hurricane destruction of the left if this is done right. ...[T]he one thing that [the left] cannot risk is an on-site display and illustration of conservatism working."