When Opportunity Knocks, Conservatives Answer
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"Maybe something good can come from this hurricane," Senator Lindsey Graham (R - S.C.) told FOX News Sunday's Chris Wallace on September 18.
Graham and Wallace were discussing the "torrent of federal spending" on relief and reconstruction projects in the Gulf coast states devastated by Hurricane Katrina that is "just exploding the deficit" (both Wallace's phrases). The Senator was advocating for budget cuts to balance the up to $200 billion of disaster spending.
"There are many ways to save money," Graham said. "You could have an across-the-board cut, non-defense across-the-board cut. You could delay the implementation of the prescription drug bill. We could start -- you know, there's so much opportunity here to go back into the budget and extract some savings to help pay for this hurricane relief that I look at it as an opportunity for the Congress to get back to its roots of being fiscally sound and conservative."
Senator Graham wasn't the only person to see opportunity in the United States' worst natural disaster.
Not-So-Compassionate Congressional Conservatives
On September 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that "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."
The House Republican Study Committee (RSC, which the Journal referred to as the Republican Study Group) featured prominently in the article. The RSC is "a group of over 100 House Republicans organized for the purpose of advancing a conservative social and economic agenda in the House of Representatives." RSC chair Representative Mike Pence (R - Ind.) told the newspaper, "The desire to bring conservative, free-market ideas to the Gulf Coast is white hot. ... We want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was."
According to the Wall Street Journal, RSC members met on September 13, "in a closed session ... at the conservative Heritage Foundation headquarters here to map strategy. Edwin Meese, the former Reagan administrationattorney general, has been actively involved."
The RSC's "free-market solutions" include "proposals to eliminate regulatory barriers to awarding federal funds to religious groups housing hurricane victims, waiving the estate tax for deaths in the storm-affected states; and making the entire region a 'flat-tax free-enterprise zone.'" These proposals "are all part of a philosophy of lowering costs for doing business," in order to speed reconstruction, said RSC member Representative Todd Tiahrt (R - Kan.).
Eight days later, the RSC went public with " Operation Offset," [PDF] a detailed twenty-four page document of suggested cuts to the federal budget that would, according to their estimate, save more than $540 billion over the next five years. Their stated aim is, in Representative Pence's words, to "insure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren."
(However, it's hard to believe that the RSC has hurricane victims' needs at heart. A story featured on their website claims [.doc file] that "two Katrina evacuees spent federal assistance to buy expensive handbags," echoing Reagan smears against women on welfare -- especially African-American women.)
It's not surprising that many of the RSC's proposed cuts would accomplish other far-right goals besides decreasing the deficit. " Operation Offset" would encourage Defense Department employees to open health savings accounts (because they "would encourage individuals to be more cost-conscious when purchasing health care products"). More dramatically, it would eliminate:
- The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (in part because "CPB and PBS continue to use federal funding to pay for questionable programming");
- Federal loans for graduate students ("graduate students make an informed decision to invest in their own futures");
- Title X family planning services for teenagers (the program provides "free and reduced-priced contraceptives, including the IUD, the injection drug Depo-Provera, and the morning-after pill to teenagers, without any parental involvement or consent"); and
- The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities ("the general public benefits very little" from them).
The Heritage Foundation immediately saluted the RSC's budget cut proposals, writing, "'Operation Offset.' We like the sound of that. With so much fat in the budget, a determined group of Members could shame the larger body into making some substantial cuts."
Heritage wasn't alone. The National Taxpayers Union "reported ' ready for duty'" in support of "Operation Offset," the same morning the document was released. The organization promised "to mobilize the full might of its own members as well as other taxpayers ... through initiatives such as e-mail alerts, op/eds, talk radio appearances, local-level rallies, and, possibly, paid advertising."
At the same time, the National Tax Limitation Committee's Lew Uhler sent an email -- including, apparently, to Move America Forward's list -- on behalf of nine conservative groups, including his own, the American Conservative Union,60 Plus Association, and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. The email urged "a measured response to Katrina ... and a continuation of sound tax and regulatory policies."
Â This "grassroots" support for budget cuts to fund Katrina relief doesn't reflect the opinion of the American public at large, according to an AP-Ipsos poll [PDF]. One thousand adults were asked, "If you had to choose, which one of the following options do you think is the best way for the government to pay for the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina?"
The most popular option, chosen by 42 percent of respondents, was to cut spending on Iraq. The second most popular choice, at 29 percent, was to delay or cancel additional tax cuts. "That's seven in 10 backing options that Bush doesn't even have on the table," a related AP article noted. Cutting spending for domestic programs was supported by just 11 percent of respondents.
But more than supporting others' policy initiatives, think tanks develop and promote their own.
Post-Katrina proposals similar to those of the RSC appeared on the Heritage Foundation's website on September 7th, as an anonymous "WebMemo" titled, "From Tragedy to Triumph: Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities." Five days later, a revised and expanded version of the memo was posted under the same title, but with authorship credited to Ed Meese, Stuart Butler and Kim R. Holmes.
The Heritage memos urge support for economic "Opportunity Zones," with no "capital gains tax on all new investment"; "substantial changes in environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act that have contributed to Katrina's damage"; drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR); repealing the estate tax (described in the memos as the "death tax") for hurricane victims; and a "large-scale military response" for "catastrophic disasters," comprised mostly of National Guard soldiers; among many other proposals. Other think tanks were busy publicizing their own post-Katrina vision.
On September 14th, two analysts at the libertarian Cato Institute suggested $62 billion in budget cuts to balance Congress' initial allotment for relief efforts. Cato urged school vouchers for displaced students (to help "not by forcing them into government schools, but by letting them choose the schools ... whether public or private"), and warned that the way to address the poverty laid bare by Katrina is not to further "the failed welfare state."
Further, Cato argued, "By using taxpayer dollars to provide disaster relief and subsidized insurance, FEMA itself encourages Americans to build in disaster-prone areas and make the rest of us pick up the tab for those risky decisions."
The American Enterprise Institute weighed in with its proposed budget cuts, including elimination of the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts. AEI fellow, founder of the corporate-sponsored opinion website Tech Central Station and former New Orleans resident James K. Glassman wrote, "New Orleans could become a laboratory for ideas like tax-free commercial zones and school reform. This is the ultimate libertarian city and the last thing it needs is top-down planning."
Another AEI researcher dismissed "the fervor of global warming alarmists" and "the supposed evils of American energy use." He predicted, "Had those [environmentalists'] demands for higher energy taxes been met before the storm, adapting to the radically altered circumstances generated by Katrina would have proved that much more difficult."
Of course, left-leaning think tanks also offered opinions and proposals in Katrina's wake. The Center for American Progress promoted giving all adults from the affected areas who are "able and willing to work access to training and a guaranteed job in the clean-up and rebuilding process."
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities challenged conservative calls for budget cuts, writing that "the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 cost more each year than the total amount likely to be spent on Katrina." CBBP also suggested using "emergency 'Section 8' vouchers to rent available apartments" and providing "temporary Medicaid coverage to poor victims of Katrina regardless of whether they fit into one of the program's regular coverage categories."
From White Paper to White House
But it's been conservative ideas that have dominated the public discourse. A news database search turned up 181 articles containing both "Hurricane Katrina" and "Heritage Foundation," from September 1st to 20th. Their titles include, "Debate Just Beginning Over Katrina Relief and Taxes," "Katrina's Aftermath: Where Will the Billions to Rebuild Come From?," "Some Urge Greater Use of Troops in Major Disasters," and "Oil and Gas: Katrina, Pump Woes May Propel ANWR through Congress."
In contrast, the Center for American Progress netted 63 references in Hurricane Katrina-related stories over the same period. Their titles include, "Kerry, Edwards Blast Bush Over Katrina Response, Wage Law Suspension," "After Katrina, Political Storm Likely: Disaster Could Bring Sweeping Changes in Government," "Katrina Shows that Governmental Policies Really Do Matter," and "Why New Orleans Is In Deep Water."
Media dominance translates into influence in the policy arena. The most widely reported example is President Bush's September 8th repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay prevailing wages for the region. But two days before that action, the Department of Homeland Security had announced that "it will not sanction employers for hiring victims of Hurricane Katrina who, at the time are unable to provide [citizenship] documentation," for at least 45 days. According to The Revealer, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson refused to respond to repeated questions about whether "this means that illegals will not be reported and prosecuted."
Similar policy changes followed, almost too quickly to compile, let alone respond to them. On September 14th, theWashington Post reported, "The White House was working yesterday to suspend wage supports for service workers in the hurricane zone as it did for construction workers on federal contracts."
The New York Times wrote on September 20th, "The Labor Department has temporarily suspended government requirements that its contractors have an affirmative action plan addressing the employment of women, members of minorities, Vietnam veterans and the disabled if the companies are first-time government contractors working on reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."
Future administration actions reportedly include vouchers to enroll affected "children in a private or religious school this year at federal expense, even if they had gone to public schools back home" and suspension of measures banning racial segregation in education and the No Child Left Behind provision that "holds districts and schools accountable for test scores of students in each racial group."
As my colleagues Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber wrote in their 2004 book Banana Republicans: How The Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State, "For more than four decades, conservatives have worked to build a network of grassroots organizations and think tanks that formulate and promote conservative ideas. ... Conservatives are now enjoying the fruits of this long-term investment."
This is even more true today, when the obvious need to do something and do something now to address large-scale and highly visible human suffering has enabled the conservative grassroots/ think tank/ media/ policymaker infrastructure to go from tragedy to far-reaching policy, in less than a month.