News & Politics

Democrats Must Fight Over Iraq Failure, But Don't Forget Katrina

Pelosi and the House Democrats have an obligation to refocus public debate on Bush's equally failed policies at home.
House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi wasted little time in jumping all over President Bush after the Iraq Study Group labeled his Iraq quagmire a bungled, wasted, and failed effort. The House's top Democrat vowed that she and House Democrats would spare no effort to get Bush to reverse course on the war. Pelosi will get lots of backing from Congressional Democrats for that. Iraq was the big issue that rocked Bush and the Republicans back on their heels November 7, and put the Democrats firmly in the driver's seat in the House.

Pelosi's crusade against Bush and the war is good and bad news for the countless number of Gulf Coast residents still displaced by the Katrina ravage. They are just as needy, homeless and ignored more than year after Katrina struck. More than a half dozen reports issued on Katrina's first anniversary last September told the same grim story. Not one new house has been built from the billions Congress allocated for construction. Thousands of small businesses have still not received loans, most schools, and hospitals are still shuttered, and most buses aren't running in New Orleans. The debris and wrecked homes are still piled up high in the blackest and poorest neighborhoods. Thousands of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast poor are still jobless, and live in FEMA constructed trailers, and subsist on private donations. Only about half of New Orleans residents have been able to return to their homes due to the government's foot drag on dispensing more federal housing aid.

A day after Pelosi saber rattled Bush, an angry New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for the endless time lambasted Congress for continued delays on Katrina aid. He called the tormenting delays a "bureaucratic maze." It's much more than that. The massive funds promised and still needed for the colossal rebuilding effort aren't forthcoming because there hasn't been the political will or a sustained effort to finish the job. And that has frustrated the Congressional Black Caucus. The group has raised its voice the loudest and loneliest during the past year for Congress to do more to push Gulf rebuilding.

The Caucus's fight over Katrina is a litmus test that will determine how much clout it will have in a Democratic controlled House, as well as how much personal and political muscle Pelosi will put behind Gulf rebuilding.

The jury so far is way out on both. Even before Pelosi took the House leadership reins she publicly said little about Katrina aid. But during the same time she issued piles of statements and press releases on the war, and Republican sex and corruption scandals. The Caucus, meanwhile, put forth a carefully crafted and far-reaching reconstruction plan for the Gulf. It held press conferences, and virtually every week implored the Bush administration and Congress to jumpstart the flagging Katrina aid effort. For all the good it did, the Caucus might as well have held its news conferences and made its pleas from the far side of the Moon. They got almost no press ink and not much support from other House Democrats.

Now that she's in power, Pelosi has sent mixed signals about how much influence the Caucus will have in the new Congress. She has green lighted the takeover by the Caucus's ranking members of the powerful Judiciary, Ways and Means, and Intelligence Committees as well as another half dozen or more key sub-committees. But Pelosi hasn't said how vigorously she will push the Caucus's poverty reduction and justice issue agenda.

The take over of these committees and subcommittees is more than simply a reward for their longevity in the House and their loyal service to the Democratic Party. It's recognition of the hard political fact that blacks are the most loyal of Democrat shock troops, and did as much as any other voting group to insure the Democrat's November 7 triumph.

But Pelosi is hardly the only top Democrat that has been laggard on Gulf rebuilding. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards flailed away at Bush for his Katrina ineptitude, spoke in vague terms about Two Americas, and made a fleeting plea for a Marshall type plan to fight poverty, a plan doomed from the moment the call was made. While Edwards barnstorms the country crusading for more government initiatives to aid the poor, he holds no official position in the Democratic Party, and is largely a solitary voice crying in the wilderness on poverty.

Now that Pelosi and Congressional Democrats sniff Bush blood on Iraq, they will step up their attack. That will absorb much of their time, energy, and it will heighten public debate on Bush's failed war policy. That's a good thing. But Pelosi and the House Democrats also have an equal obligation to put time and energy, and to refocus public debate on Bush's equally failed policies at home. The languishing Katrina poor and needy is testament to the biggest of his failures.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.