Hurricane Katrina

It's the Governance, Stupid!

Katrina may well put an end to the culture wars in Washington and move the political debate back to the issue of governance.
Katrina was a gut-punch to America's political psyche, and the lay of the land is going to change in her wake. In the aftermath, as one might expect, the pundits have tried to shape how that landscape will look according to personal ideology.

But they will inevitably overlook the most frighteningly obvious lesson from all of this.

What Katrina revealed about our federal government was an utter lack of competence, and the sorry state of its institutions after 30 years of spending on the wrong priorities.

There was plenty of government to go around somewhere. The image of hundreds of school buses, which could have evacuated New Orleans residents, that were lying under 10 feet of water in an abandoned city depot is emblematic. The federal government had water, medicine, food and security at hand, in addition to the transportation needed to get it down to the coast in a hurry. As the Washington Post's Bill Arkin wrote, "The problem wasn't the lack of resources available. It was leadership, decisiveness, foresight. The problem was commanding and mobilizing the resources, civil and military."

And the sad and unsettling statement by President Bush that the military is the "institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations" only drove the point home. Katrina showed that Americans need a more inclusive idea of security from their representatives, instead of just the usual platitudes about "strong defense."

The vivid failure to protect American citizens in harm's way gives progressives a rare opportunity to change the subject in an important national discussion; right now, a unified left could reframe the debate about the role of government from whether smaller is better to a discussion of what we expect it to do. The way to do that is to highlight a concept that should become a shibboleth for progressives: the imperative of good governance.

Good governance is a catch-all phrase used by scholars of comparative politics. They define it differently, but in its most succinct form, the idea has four parts. First, and most importantly, good governance means responding to the needs of your citizenry. That may seem painfully obvious to you and me, but the world is full of leaders who don't get it -- or don't care to.

Democracy is just as important -- in it is embedded the all-important principle of self- government. Good governance also rests on the rule of law and a healthy respect for judicial independence. The final pillar is transparency -- it's inconceivable that we could govern ourselves well without keeping tabs on what our representatives are cooking up in our name.

Katrina has brought into sharp relief that in each and every measure of governance, the current Republican leadership has failed miserably. And they're vulnerable for it -- the fog is beginning to clear.

People are starting to see that, in an administration that has elevated politics to a religion, governing is but an afterthought. That became clear, even to the mainstream media, when political guru Karl Rove was elevated to Deputy Whitehouse Chief of Staff in charge of "coordinating domestic policy, economic policy, national security and homeland security," also known as everything.

In a disaster like Katrina, people fall back on the familiar -- they revert to form and "trust their gut." So it's telling that the first thought for rebuilding the Gulf Coast that came to the least transparent administration ever was: "Let's authorize a huge supplemental spending bill to be doled out to the same administration supporters that have bungled the reconstruction of Iraq under the same kind of controversial no-bid contracts."

And it should come as little surprise that a President who once responded to a question about the U.S. commitment to treaty law by snickering, "Oh, international law, well, let me call my lawyer," should also skirt domestic law in his zeal to depress wages for people working on the Gulf Coast reconstruction.

But nowhere is the shoddy governance of the current crop of Republicans more clearly illustrated than in their apparent inability to respond to the needs of ordinary American citizens.

Don't listen to the rhetoric coming from either side, just look at their legislative proposals and ask, cui bono?, or "who gains?" The legislation bouncing around makes one thing clear: No matter what the Nader set says, there is without a doubt a dime's worth of difference between the two parties' governing philosophies.

Just a few examples. While Illinois Democrats Rahm Emmanuel and Barack Obama were pushing legislation to speed tax refunds to hurricane victims, UPI reported that Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., were busy searching for a dead body rich enough to pay estate taxes so that they could put the repeal of the so-called "death tax" back on Congress's legislative agenda. Unfortunately for them, so few people are wealthy enough to pay the tax that, so far, their search has been fruitless.

Legislators went to their pet issues, and it was so revealing that the Washington Post ran a story headlined, "Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina."

While Representative Jim McDermott, D-Wash., formerly a child psychologist, offered legislation that would extend benefits to tens of thousands of children in need of relief, Rick Santorum, R-Penn., was looking out for his donors, one of which is the corporate AccuWeather meteorological service. So he got busy in the days following the disaster by advancing legislation that would keep the National Weather Service out of the business of predicting the next deadly storm.

Naturally, both parties approved the emergency supplemental spending bill by a wide margin. But while several dozen conservative legislators led by Todd Aiken, R-Mo., were trying to push an amendment that would mandate cutting the non-defense budget by 2.5% across the board, Democrats were also proposing comprehensive, long-term aid to the stricken areas for housing, keeping kids in school and healthcare.

Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. suggested forming a Gulf Coast Redevelopment Authority modeled on FDR's Tennessee Valley Authority. In fact, there's been quite a bit of talk about a "new New Deal" in progressive circles. As William Greider wrote in The Nation:
Some bold Democrats are doing what they haven't dared to do for many years, even decades: They are invoking their New Deal legacy and applying its liberal operating assumptions to the present crisis.
At the same time, the New York Times reported that "Republican leaders in Congress and some White House officials see opportunities in Hurricane Katrina" to advance controversial legislation like "giving students vouchers to pay for private schools, paying churches to help with temporary housing and scaling back business regulation." In addition to President Bush's suspension of federal prevailing-wage laws, Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., offered a bill that would allow the EPA to suspend environmental regulations during the reconstruction. These acts are the very essence of poor governance: placing cronyism and ideology over the needs of devastated communities.

And, worryingly for GOP leaders, this is obvious to the point where it defies ideological barriers. According to the Washington Post's David Ignatius, even Newt Gingrich is talking about how the Republicans need to move away from the "culture wars" in the wake of Katrina and start focusing on "performance."

Which is why progressives should be watching, collectively, for more stories about this profound disconnect to continue to be reported, as they surely will, and progressives should shout them from every street corner in America. Message Americans need to send to Washington: it's the governance, stupid!
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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