Democrats Strike Different Tone on Katrina

Ben Evans, AP, February 19, 2009

The economic stimulus signed by President Barack Obama will spread billions of dollars across the country to spruce up aging roads and bridges. But there’s not a dime specifically dedicated to fixing leftover damage from Hurricane Katrina .

And there’s no outrage about it.

Democrats who routinely criticized President George W. Bush for not sending more money to the Gulf Coast appear to be giving Obama the benefit of the doubt in his first major spending initiative. Even the Gulf’s fiercest advocates say they’re happy with the stimulus package, and their states have enough money for now to address their needs.

“I’m not saying there won’t be a need in the future, but right now the focus is not on more money, it’s on using what we have,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu , D-La., who has criticized Democrats and Republicans alike over Katrina funding.

It’s a significant change in tone from the Bush years, when any perceived slight of Katrina victims was met with charges that the Republican president who bungled the initial response to the disaster continued to callously ignore the Gulf’s needs years later.

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The federal government has devoted more than $175 billion to the region since Katrina ripped through New Orleans in 2005, and billions remain unspent. It’s unclear how much more money will be needed, but nearly everyone agrees the federal government should continue investing heavily in the region’s levees and other infrastructure to prevent a repeat of Katrina’s devastation.

Under the $787 billion stimulus bill, states will share more than $90 billion in infrastructure money. Gulf states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama can use their funds for Katrina-related projects, but they’ll get the same formula-based share that other states receive.

There was hardly a complaint as Obama and other Democratic leaders pieced together the package. Members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus, who have called Bush’s Katrina funding a moral failure, said they were thrilled with the stimulus bill. Landrieu won several provisions that do not allocate new money but are aimed at cutting through red tape to free up existing funds.

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Thompson and others say new funding wasn’t necessary in the stimulus largely because billions of federal dollars remain bogged down in bureaucracy or tied up in planning. As a result, they said, Katrina funding doesn’t fit with the quick-spending purpose of the stimulus bill, which is aimed at kick-starting the economy.

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In part, the lack of criticism this year could reflect a stronger trust by fellow Democrats that Obama will follow through with his campaign pledge to rebuild levees and “keep the broken promises” to the Gulf.

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